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50+ African American Workers: A Status Report, Implications, and Recommendations

Half a century after the civil rights movement began, African Americans continue to struggle in the workplace, but are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the jobs projected to be in high demand. These challenges, magnified by the 2007-09 recession and its legacy of high unemployment, begin when they start working and continue until they retire. Although the status of younger African American workers is regularly studied and debated, the role that African Americans age 50 and older play in the labor force has received little attention, even as employers and policymakers begin to focus on the challenges and opportunities created by an aging workforce.

This report provides the most comprehensive assessment to date of the employment experiences and economic well-being of 50+ African Americans. It describes their health and demographic characteristics, labor force participation rates, earnings, occupation, and other job characteristics, as well as income levels and wealth holdings. It shows trends over time and compares outcomes to those for 50+ Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. The report also looks to the future, identifying high-growth industries and occupations, considering their suitability for 50+ African American workers, and highlighting ways in which private organizations and public policy might promote employment for African Americans age 50 and older.

Key findings include:

  • 50+ African Americans make up 9% of the mature workforce and contributed $160 billion to the economy in 2008.
  • Despite some progress over the past three decades, African Americans age 50 and older continue to face significant workplace challenges. African American men age 50+ are less likely to participate in the labor force than both Hispanic and white men. They earn much less than non- Hispanic whites, but more than Hispanics.
  • African American women age 50+ fare somewhat better. They are as likely to work for pay as non- Hispanic white women and more likely to work than Hispanic women. As with men, however, employed 50+ African American women earn less than their non-Hispanic white counterparts but more than Hispanic women.
  • The black-white earnings gap narrowed between 1979 and 1999, but has recently widened again (although the gap for men remained smaller in 2008 than in 1979). The economic downturn that began in 2007 has further eroded African Americans’ employment and earnings.
  • Because many 50+ African Americans have limited earnings, they often struggle financially. They generally receive less income than both whites and Hispanics. African American poverty rates at age 62 and older have declined over the past three decades, but this trend may not continue.
  • In 2004, before the current economic downturn began, fewer than half of African Americans in their fifties and early sixties had accumulated enough wealth to live as comfortably in retirement as they did while working. Their retirement preparedness is likely worse in 2010, as high unemployment has forced many African Americans to dip into their savings and declines in stock prices and home values eroded wealth holdings.

Much of the report is based on analysis of several nationally representative household surveys collected or funded by the federal government, including the American Community Survey (ACS), Current Population Survey (CPS), Health and Retirement Study (HRS), National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), and the decennial censuses. The analysis includes all workers age 50 and older. When comparing labor force participation rates across groups and the characteristics of potential workers, however, the focus was on adults age 50 to 74, because few people age 75 or older work.  Please contact Rebecca Perron at 202-434-6324 for more information.

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