Who Among African Americans is Counted in the Labor Market and in the Voting Booth?

Next Tuesday is Election Day.  For months, get out the vote campaigns have been under way in communities across the country and the public has endured an endless stream of political ads and robocalls intended to bolster typically sluggish voter turnout during midterm elections.  Arguably, the biggest risk to people showing up at the polls on Tuesday is a basic disbelief that their individual vote counts or will do much to change the status quo.  On one hand, voters might feel justified in holding this view given that neither party has said (or done) much this election cycle to address growing economic inequality and stagnant living standards, issues that have been top of mind for most Americans for at least the past six years.  In fact, the most vocal public figure on this issue in recent months has been someone we didn’t elect – Fed Chair, Janet Yellen.

Just in case reports of strong job growth and declining unemployment this year have lulled our elected leaders into a false sense of security about the public’s level of concern over the economy, they should be reminded that counting matters.  Since January of this year, the U.S. economy has added an average of 227,000 jobs per month and the unemployment rate has fallen from 6.6 percent to 5.9 percent.  But, according to EPI’s monthly measure of “missing workers,” if job opportunities were significantly stronger, there would potentially be an additional 6.3 million people either working or looking for work and the unemployment rate would be 9.6 percent.

A few years ago, sociologists Becky Petit and Bryan Sykes brought to light an important way in which counting matters when it comes to measuring African American progress.  Specifically, Petit and Sykes called into question the accuracy of social and economic indicators used to gauge how well different groups within American society are doing.  Most of these indicators are based on the civilian non-institutionalized population.  While this is a term few people give any thought to, by definition it excludes people who are in jails, prisons, mental institutions, nursing homes or on active duty in the Armed Forces.

In a practical sense, not counting these groups in official labor market statistics is rational given the severely restricted choices they face about if or how they could participate in the workforce.  But not including the incarcerated makes a big difference in how we measure the economic status of African American men.  The Congressional Research Service estimates that the U.S. prison population has increased 790 percent since 1980 and large disparities persist in rates of incarceration.  In 2013, African American men were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men and 4.5 times more likely than Hispanic men.

According to research by Stephen Raphael and Michael Stoll, 80 to 85 percent of the explosive growth in prison populations is attributable to policy changes.  More than half of the combined state and federal inmate population at the end of 2012 (most recent data available for both jurisdictions) had been convicted of non-violent, often drug-related, offenses as opposed to the violent criminals stereotypically depicted in political ads used to frighten voters (e.g., Willie Horton in 1988 and Nikko Jenkins in 2014).  In other words, many of those incarcerated are people that could otherwise be engaged in more productive capacities within society if those we’ve elected were to make different policy choices about a range of things from sentencing to employment and educational opportunities.  A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in education.  Instead, as the prison population has grown, so has the number of people excluded from the critical labor market indicators used to inform economic policy – another kind of “missing worker”.

To illustrate this point, Becky Petit and Bruce Western estimated that in 2008, the Employment to Population Ratio (EPOP) for working age (18-64 year old) black men would have been 5.4 percentage points lower (61.1 percent vs. 66.5 percent) if inmates were included.  Petit and Western’s adjustment involves adding the state and federal prison and local jail populations to the civilian non-institutionalized population in the denominator of the EPOP ratio.  Applying that methodology to data for 2013, I estimate that the EPOP of working age black men would be 3.9 percentage points lower (58.4 percent vs. 62.3 percent), compared to 0.8 and 1.9 percentage points lower for white and Hispanic men, respectively, if inmates were counted.  I further estimate that when we include the inmate population, less than half of all black men (48.3 percent) age 20 or older were employed full-time in 2013, compared to 60.3 percent of white men and 65.0 percent of Hispanic men.  Put into context, this kind of selective counting helps to explain how black men’s annual earnings and black household income both increased between 2012 and 2013, yet black children were the only group of children for whom the poverty rate was unchanged – yet another example of how counting matters.

There are so many ways – both formal and informal – we as a nation tell the socially and economically disadvantaged that they don’t count.  For the economically vulnerable in particular, voting may be the best opportunity to prove otherwise.  Unfortunately, for the growing number of African American men with a current or past felony conviction, the risk of neither being counted at the polls nor in critical economic indicators has very real implications.