WASHINGTON – While racial inequality has largely disappeared and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities between blacks and whites remain relatively unchanged since marchers assembled in Washington five decades ago.
The country recently celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the historic civil-rights gathering at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a stirring speech that articulated the dream of many Americans who yearned for racial equality.
The event, known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was not only for racial equality; it was also a call for better access to everything the thriving American economy had to offer.
The Washington marchers made several economic demands, including a higher federal minimum wage, a law barring discrimination by employers, and a massive job-training program. In January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the set of policies that became known as the ‘War on Poverty’ to meet some of those demands. Later that year, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended racial segregation in education, employment, and voting facilities. In 1966, the Johnson administration increased the federal minimum wage.
The changing economic landscape in the following decades after the civil-rights movement saw improved conditions for all Americans, and by some measures, black Americans have seen clear improvements. More blacks are finishing high school and more are in college than at any point in history. As of the last presidential election, blacks are more likely to vote than any other racial group in America. The gap in life expectancy rates among blacks and whites has narrowed in the past five decades.
Yet, blacks remain likelier than whites to be unemployed, be poor, get arrested and serve time in prison.
In 1963, the unemployment rate among whites averaged 5 percent and the black rate averaged 10.9 percent. The ratio of the black unemployment rate to the white unemployment rate has changed little since the 1960s. Last month, the jobless rate among whites was 6.6 percent while almost twice that number among blacks, at 12.6 percent.
Poverty in black communities, as with poverty overall, declined dramatically through the 1960s, falling from a rate of 55 percent in 1959 to 32 percent in 1969. By 1989, the black poverty rate had declined to 30 percent. The economic boom in the late 1990s pushed black poverty to its lowest rate on record – 22.5 percent in 2000. But the financial crisis in 2007 drove the black poverty rate back up to 27.6 percent by 2011, which was nearly three times the white poverty rate of 9.8 percent that year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
After years of narrowing, the gap between black and white median income widened from 2000 to 2011, and the gap in household wealth is even larger.
Between 1967 and 2011, the median income of a black household of three rose from about $24,000 to nearly $40,000, according to census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. In 2011, the median income for black households was about 59 percent of the median income for white households, up slightly from 55 percent in 1967. The gap in median individual income between blacks and whites rose by a third, to almost $9,000 a year, between 2000 and 2011.
The housing market collapse that began in 2007 took a greater toll on black families than whites because heading into the recession housing constituted a higher proportion of their wealth. Between 2005 and 2009, the median wealth – as measured by assets minus debts – of black families fell by 53 percent. White median wealth fell only by 16 percent during the same period. An Urban Institute study found that whites had six times the wealth of blacks. By the most recent data, the average white household had about $632,000 in wealth, versus $98,000 for black households.
One particular area where the gap has narrowed is in high school graduation rates, which have risen for both whites and blacks. High school completion rates have converged since the 1960s, and now about nine out of ten blacks and whites have a high school diploma.