Center for American Progress

Left Behind: Less-Educated Young Black Men in the Economic Boom of the 1990s

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Left Behind Book CoverFor more than 15 years, social scientists and policy advocates have been warning Americans that half of our youth and young adults are having great difficulty transitioning into adulthood (Edelman and Ladner 1991; William T. Grant Foundation 1998). These young people are distinguished by the absence of postsecondary schooling. Dropouts, 16 to 18 years old and older, have the most difficulty. However, many 18- to 24-year-olds who graduated from high school but are not enrolled in any form of postsecondary schooling (the “non-enrolled”) remain out of work or have jobs paying too little to sustain themselves and their families. Joblessness and low earnings among these less-educated youth and young adults are contributing to reductions in marriage and increases in nonmarital childbearing (Lichter, LeClere, and McLaughlin 1991; Oppenheimer 1988; South and Lloyd 1992; Xie et al. 2003). Since poverty rates are higher among unmarried mothers and family income is positively associated with postsecondary schooling, these children are unlikely to escape the fate of their young parents (McLanahan and Casper 1995).

In response, policy analysts and advocates for youth and young adults have been calling for a wide range of special initiatives targeting all 16- to 24-year-old less-educated youth—the forgotten half, or, for those who are both out of school and out of work, disconnected youth (Besharov 2000). The School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994 and the Youth Opportunity grant program were modestly funded and short-lived responses. However, the sustained economic growth of the 1990s was sufficient to increase employment and earnings among most of this population (Sum et al. 2002). Because many less-educated women also benefited from welfare reform efforts, the employment and earnings gains for women were much stronger than the corresponding gains for men. In fact, unmarried young black mothers, one subgroup singled out for special attention by youth advocates, recorded the strongest employment and earnings gains, resulting in declines in poverty and welfare receipt among black children (Blank and Schmidt 2001; Haskins 2001).

Despite some erosion since the 2001 recession, the urgent need for special youth-targeted programs has been undermined by reports of the gains during the 1990s, including a widely cited study suggesting that the economic recovery would absorb less-educated young black men—historically, the hardest-to reach-population—into the labor market (Freeman and Rodgers 2000). After all, business cycles affect the fortunes of most Americans, so, many observers assume that economic recovery will once again lift the fortunes of young, less-educated men.

But such optimism is unwarranted. Less-educated young black men were left behind in the economic boom of the 1990s. During the 1990s the employment rate of 16- to 24-year-old, less-educated black men actually fell from its peak during the 1980s economic expansion. What’s more, their labor force participation rate continued the decline that occurred throughout the 1980s. These findings question the wisdom of a broad strategy for all less-educated youth and young adults, and suggest that targeted approaches are needed to recover a subpopulation for which sustained economic growth is apparently not enough.

Given the recent attacks on affirmative action, new policies targeting young black men exclusively are unlikely. Their needs will be weighed against those of similarly situated people. Therefore, most chapters in this volume compare the labor market outcomes for less-educated young black men with those of other young, less-educated men (and women). To provide some background for these analyses, this chapter uses decennial census data to describe the demographic characteristics of less-educated, non-enrolled young men and connect the men to employers, families, and children, the poor, and geographical areas (regions and metropolitan/nonmetropolitan areas).[1] The chapter views these connections between 1979 and 2001, a period that includes the two longest economic expansions in our nation’s history.

Black and Other Less-Educated Young Men

The racial and ethnic distribution of our target population exhibits the results of dramatic demographic changes over the past few decades. In 2001, more than half of less-educated non-enrolled young men (57.6 percent) were white, 15.7 percent were black, and 23.5 percent were Hispanic=[2] The proportion of whites in this group has declined over time from 78 percent in 1979 to 57.6 percent in 2001. The number of less-educated white men declined by nearly 50 percent, from 6.16 million in 1979 to 3.3 million in 2001.

At the same time, the number of less-educated Hispanic men in the labor force more than doubled, from 593,000 in 1979 to 1.34 million in 2001. As a proportion of less-educated non-enrolled young men, Hispanics grew from 7.5 percent in 1979 to 15.8 percent in 1989 and 23.5 percent in 1999.

While the proportion of less-educated non-enrolled young men that is black has remained fairly stable (13.1 percent in 1979, 15.8 percent in 1989, and 15.0 percent in 1999), the number of less-educated non-enrolled young black men in the labor force declined from 1.03 million in 1979 to 898,000 in 2001. This drop coincided with a rapid growth in the number of young black men who were incarcerated or otherwise involved in the criminal justice system.

What Do They Mean to the Labor Force?

Men between the ages of 16 and 24 are an important subgroup of the U.S. population, despite making up only 14.8 percent of the total male labor force. Men at these ages make critical decisions about work, schooling, vocational training, fertility, and family formation that will have implications for themselves and others. In 2001, the most recent year for which complete data are available, our target population—non-enrolled men with a high school education or less—represented 49.5 percent of all male workers 16 to 24 years old. This group of just less than 6 million young men made up about 7.5 percent of the male American labor force in 2001.

Wages for less-educated non-enrolled young men have fluctuated over the past three decades. Their median hourly wage was $7.72 in 2001, a slight increase from $7.22 in 1989, which represented a substantial decline from $8.73 in 1979.[3] Those who completed high school saw their median hourly wage fall from $10.96 in 1979 to $8.77 in 2001. The median hourly wage for men who did not complete high school was $6.75 in 2001, down from $7.29 in 1979.

Wages for the less educated were substantially lower than wages for their more-educated counterparts. More than two-thirds of young less-educated male workers (68.5 percent) had median hourly wages below the median hourly wages of workers age 16 to 24. Slightly fewer of those who completed high school fell below this level (62.6 percent). The bulk of less-educated non-enrolled young men who did not complete high school (80.5 percent) had median hourly earnings below the midpoint mark for workers age 16–24.

However, little education meant joblessness for substantial number of young men. More than a quarter (27.7 percent) of less-educated non-enrolled young men reported no earnings in 2001. Though substantial, this proportion was an improvement over 1979, when 32.5 percent reported no earnings. Of those who completed high school, 22.3 percent reported no earnings in 2001, down from 29.0 percent in 1979. The share of less-educated non-enrolled young men with no high school diploma or earnings was 38.8 percent in 2001 and 37.7 percent in 1979.

The substantial racial and ethnic differences in labor market outcomes among young men are well known. Less-educated, non-enrolled young black men experience the poorest outcomes, with 82.9 percent earning no more than the median hourly wage for all male workers between 16 and 24 years old. Nearly half (46.2 percent) of less-educated non-enrolled young black men reported no earnings in 2001. Hispanics fared better, with 73.3 percent earning wages below the midpoint for all workers. Among less-educated white male workers, 62.6 percent had hourly earnings at the median or below.

Among less-educated non-enrolled young men, 76.1 percent of whites had completed high school in 2001, compared with 62.2 percent of blacks and less than 50 percent of Hispanics. For less-educated non-enrolled young white men, high school completion rates improved steadily from 64.5 percent in 1979 to 70.0 percent in 1989 and 75.1 percent in 1999. Completion rates for less-educated non-enrolled young black men jumped from 48.5 percent in 1979 to 63.3 percent in 1989, a 30.5 percent increase. The rate improved slightly in 1999 to 64.1 percent, but fell slightly in 2001 to 62.2 percent.

Less-educated non-enrolled young Hispanic men lagged behind whites and blacks in high school completion rates over time. Just 39.6 percent finished high school in 1979. Hispanic completion rates declined to 35.3 percent in 1989, but increased to 48.9 percent in 1999 before falling slightly to 48.3 in 2001. Given their strong commitment to employment, these workers are destined to remain at the lower end of the wage distribution unless additional investment in education and training occurs.

What Do They Mean to Families and Children?

Parents of less-educated non-enrolled young men may be concerned for their sons, who are coming of age without the necessary credentials for high earnings in a modern economy. However, these men raise other concerns for families as well. Marriage rates among less-educated non-enrolled young men have declined significantly since 1979, when more than a quarter (25.9 percent) were married. By 2001, the proportion of these young men that was married fell to just 13.3 percent.

This decline is a manifestation of the retreat from marriage, which has been especially important among the less educated. The decline in marriage does not indicate a decline in the number of less-educated non-enrolled young men responsible for children; increases in cohabitation have almost completely offset declines in marriage, and unwed births to cohabiting women account for nearly all the growth in unwed births since 1975 (Bumpass and Lu 2000; Bumpass, Sweet, and Cherlin 1991). Both the decline in marriage and the increase in unwed births have been greater among less-educated women (Elwood and Jencks 2004). Unfortunately, the Current Population Survey (CPS) does not provide separate estimates of unmarried fatherhood. However, Sorenson and Nightingale (chapter 8, this volume) suggest that as many as 25 percent of 18–24-year-old, less-educated black males are fathers.

Although racial differences in family structure are also well known, the proportions of less-educated men who are married or living with children has declined substantially among all racial and ethnic groups. The proportion of less-educated non-enrolled young white men who were married fell from 27.4 percent in 1979 to 14.2 percent in 2001, a 48.2 percent drop. Similarly, the proportion of these men who lived with their children fell from 14.2 percent in 1979 to 11.6 percent in 2001. Likewise, the proportion of less-educated non-enrolled young Hispanic men who were married fell from 28.8 percent in 1979 to 16.3 percent in 2001, a 43.4 percent drop. The proportion of these men who lived with their children fell from 22.1 percent in 1979 to 15.1 percent in 2001, a 31.7 percent decrease.

Nevertheless, marriage and living with children is least likely for less-educated black men. Just 38.5 percent of black children under 18 years old live with both parents, compared with 76.9 percent of white children and 65.1 percent of Hispanic children. In 2001, only 7.4 percent of less-educated non-enrolled young black men were married, down from 15.7 percent in 1979, a 52.9 percent drop. However, the decrease in the proportion of less-educated black men who lived with their children was much less, from 12.4 percent in 1979 to 10.1 percent in 2001, an 18.5 percent decline.

A surprising development was that by 2001, the proportion of married less-educated young white men (16.5 percent) and Hispanic men (16.4 percent) who had not completed high school slightly exceeded those who had graduated (14.2 and 16.3 percent, respectively). Less than 2 percent of less-educated young black men without a high school diploma were married in 2001, a staggering 82.5 percent drop from 1979, when 11.4 percent of these men were married.

Almost a quarter of these less-educated non-enrolled young men reported that they were living independently in 2001. This was a substantial increase from the 11.6 percent who lived independently in 1979. A greater proportion of white (24.3 percent) and Hispanic less-educated non-enrolled young men (24.7 percent) lived independently than black less-educated non-enrolled young men (16.3 percent).

What Do They Mean to the Poor?

The correlation between living in a poor family and having no more than a high school diploma has apparently weakened over time. Between 1979 and 1989, the proportion of less-educated non-enrolled young men living in households with incomes below the poverty threshold declined significantly. In 1979, 34.1 percent lived in such households and 43.1 percent lived in poor or near-poor households, (i.e., households with incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty level). By 1989, the proportion living in households below the poverty level fell to 16.0 percent and the proportion living in poor or near-poor households dropped to 27.3 percent. These rates fell again in 2001 to 14.3 and 26.5 percent, respectively.

As expected, less-educated non-enrolled young men without a high school diploma had higher rates of poverty (22.1 percent) and near-poverty (39.7 percent) in 2001 than those who completed their high school education (10.5 and 20.1 percent, respectively). Again, these figures were significantly lower than their poverty (38.4 percent) and near-poverty (49.0 percent) rates in 1979.

The decline in poverty rates was greatest among white less-educated non-enrolled young men, falling from 30.9 percent in 1979 to 10.4 percent in 1989 and 8.6 percent in 2001. The decline in poverty rates for black less-educated non-enrolled young men was less dramatic; these rates fell from 44.5 percent in 1979 to 29.2 percent in 1989 and 26.1 percent in 2001. Less-educated Hispanic young men had their poverty rates cut almost in half from 1979 (48.4 percent) to 1989 (25.0 percent). By 2001, their poverty rate was well below the rate for blacks, at 20.1 percent.

The proportion of white less-educated non-enrolled young men in poor or near-poor families fell from 40.0 percent in 1979 to 19.0 percent in 1989 and 21.2 percent in 2001. Poor and near-poor rates for black less-educated non-enrolled young men fell from 55.8 percent in 1979 to 45.8 percent in 1989 and 37.9 in 2001. Less-educated Hispanic young men experienced similar dramatic declines, from 58.2 percent in 1979 to 42.6 percent in 1989 to 37.4 percent in 2001.

Where Do They Live?

Less-educated non-enrolled young men are voters, parents, consumers, workers, and neighbors. If they are more highly concentrated in some parts of the country than others or in metropolitan areas than in nonmetropolitan areas, they can affect voter participation, child poverty rates, the composition of the student population, the mix of goods and services, and the quality of the labor force. For example, teachers in areas with high concentrations of less-educated young men are more likely to work in schools with large numbers of children from homes headed by poor, single mothers. Because welfare reform now requires these mothers to work, many of these children will be “latchkey” children with no one to supervise them or help with their homework when they return from school. Crime rates are also higher among less-educated men, so residents of communities in which these men are concentrated will be at greater risk of victimization and disproportionately affected by the flow of ex-offenders now reentering society. Again, one of the most apparent manifestations of high concentrations of less-educated young men is homelessness, because public housing assistance is usually unavailable to childless adults.

Less-educated non-enrolled young men are unevenly distributed across the country. They are concentrated in the South, which has 40 percent of our target population. Nearly a quarter (24.2 percent) of these young men live in the West, 21 percent reside in the Midwest, and 15.3 percent live in the Northeast. The proportion of less-educated non-enrolled young men in the South increased 7 percent from 1979 to 2001 and the proportion in the West increased 6.4 percent.

The proportion of all racial groups living in the South has increased since 1979. Less-educated non-enrolled young black men remained heavily concentrated in the South, with 61.6 percent residing there in 2001, up from 54.9 percent in 1979. The proportion of less-educated white men living in the South increased from 30 percent in 1979 to 35.6 percent in 2001 and the proportion of Hispanics increased from 30.3 percent in 1979 to 37.6 percent in 2001. Thus, the present concentration of less-educated non-enrolled young men in the South may be a consequence of migration, immigration, and technological or other changes, which increased demand for educated workers in some regions (such as the Northeast) more than in others.

Despite a significant growth in the numbers of Hispanic less-educated non-enrolled young men in the South, the greatest concentration of these men is in the West. In 2001, 41.9 percent of less-educated Hispanic men lived in the West. These proportions have fluctuated over the years, with 44 percent of less-educated Hispanic young men living in the West in 1979, 49 percent in 1989, and 46 percent in 2001. The proportions of Hispanic less-educated, non-enrolled young men living in the Midwest and the Northeast declined slightly.

The overwhelming majority of these less-educated non-enrolled young men are concentrated in urban areas, with more than three-quarters living in designated metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). Between 1979 and 1989, the proportion of less-educated non-enrolled young men living in MSAs jumped from 39 to 72.5 percent, an 85.9 percent increase. By 2001, more than three-quarters of less-educated non-enrolled young men (75.9 percent) lived in MSAs.

Blacks (82.4 percent) and Hispanics (91 percent) were most heavily concentrated in urban areas, while slightly more than two-thirds of whites (68.3 percent) were living in urban areas. The proportions of all racial and ethnic groups living in MSAs increased substantially between 1979 and 1989. White less-educated non-enrolled young men increased from 35.7 to 67.9 percent, Hispanics jumped from 48.5 to 74.7 percent, and blacks grew from 55.4 to 90 percent. This increased concentration of less-educated men in urban areas has gone virtually unnoticed in the literature, and raises special concerns for how education and workforce policies operate in urban areas.


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[1] Less-educated young women have been the subject of similar decompositions in volumes that study the effects of welfare reform. See, for example, Blank and Schmidt (2001).

[2] For brevity we abbreviate our racial and ethnic categories. By black, we mean non-Hispanic black; by white, we mean non-Hispanic white. Hispanics may be of any race.

[3] All median hourly wages are measured in 2001 dollars.

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