Many Black Workers Stuck in Dead-End Jobs

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African Americans make up a disproportionate number of the nation's low-income employees, according to a new study from the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Labor specialist Steven Pitts, the study's lead author, explains the findings.


From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

For many children across the country today is the first day of school. Fifty years ago today, the governor of Arkansas ordered State National Guardsmen to stop nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Weeks later, President Eisenhower ordered U.S. Army troops to escort the nine children into the school.

During the coming weeks, NEWS & NOTES will bring you our own original reports on this important civil rights anniversary. But we'd also like your help. Please visit our blog,, and tell us your personal stories if you were involved in desegregating your local school. And regardless of who you are, we'd like to hear your reflections on this historic event.

Today's news proves we're still wrestling with many issues of race and social justice. Lots of us spent Labor Day kicking back with a glass of iced tea and waving goodbye to summer. But if you stopped to get fast food at the drive-thru or spent a night at a motel, your weekend plans may have relied on the work of some of America's low-income employees. A disproportionate number of them are African-American. That's according to a new study from the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

And for more we've got the study's lead author, Dr. Steven Pitts.

Hi, Dr. Pitts.

Dr. STEVEN PITTS (Labor Policy Specialist, Center for Labor Research and Education, University of California, Berkeley): How are you doing today?

CHIDEYA: I am doing great. Now, there have been so many studies about low-income workers. What makes yours different?

Dr. PITTS: Well, I think one thing that we saw in the course of our study is that oftentimes when people frame the question of jobs in the black community and look at the problems there, you know, they're focused on the question of unemployment. And what we've found in our study is that there's really a two-dimensional problem on jobs in the black community, although, issue of unemployment, a very real problem there. And there's also a very real problem of low-wage jobs. And when you think about the lot of activity that goes on in the black community, it focused on job training. But job training doesn't really address the issue of blacks who have jobs, whose jobs need to be improved. So I think one important element of the study is to kind of broaden the focus, to go beyond unemployment, to also look at the question of low-wage work.

CHIDEYA: So give us a brief thumbnail sketch of the average person or a typical person you're talking about.

Dr. PITTS: Well, we found that about a third of all black workers in 2000 worked in three basic industries: retail trade, so at McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Targets, the mall. They may work at health care, whether it be in a hospital or home health care industry. They may work in hotels. In looking at those three industries who have said they employ about a third of black workers, a large, large majority of those workers have low-wage jobs.

We used a cutoff of 12.87 per hour, and we found in retail, say, the malls -whatever, about 73 percent of black workers there have low wages. In health care, around 61 percent. In hospitality, hotels, around 80 percent. And so we have a lot of people working now who are working full time actually, but who simply have low-paying jobs.

CHIDEYA: Now, what role, if any, does discrimination play in this kind of parsing out of who gets to work in low-wage jobs?

Dr. PITTS: I think you have two things that are happening that are kind of intertwined. On the one hand, you do have that a lot of the jobs that are growing in this country and I what call place-based that's stuck in this country, that won't be outsourced, so we aren't going to Beijing to go to McDonalds. Those, sort of, place-based kind of industries are growing very rapidly, and those are largely low-wage jobs. That's the kind of the basic contexts.

And then you lay on top of that issue of racism in terms of employer preferences for non-blacks into the slotting of certain genre of the jobs and to not having blacks in jobs that create ladders. And so it's a combination of both basic racism today, historical racism, but also the nature of the economy that we face with today as well.

CHIDEYA: Now, you could argue that to avoid getting a job at McDonalds, you just need to stay in school, get an education. So is this really a question of individual responsibility? Not a question of some grand plan that other people are imposing on low-income workers?

Dr. PITTS: Really not. I mean, people should stay in school and understand certain things. It's not even a question - that's the real bottom line what responsible people do undertake. But the reality here is that - look at the future growth in this country, and you examine what kind of I call those place-based industries. The industries are probably - are not threatened by outsourcing. Many of those jobs are low-wage jobs. Somebody will work in retail jobs. As long as they're being created, somebody will work on those jobs. It doesn't matter what sort of training people have coming out of school. Somebody will have those jobs, even in an ideal world. If we had every single person in this country a Ph.D., you will still have the retail jobs. You still have the jobs in hotels. And somebody will do those jobs.

So both things we need to address. We need to make sure that people do take their own personal responsibilities but beyond that, and the fact that we tend to ignore is that we need to improve the options people have when they finish their training. And that's why I want to hope, if possibly, we can focus on a bit more.

CHIDEYA: Just briefly, fair wage legislation. Should there be fair wage local legislation instead of just minimum wage?

Dr. PITTS: There should be. I - as you know, here in San Francisco, we actually have a higher minimum wage than the state and federal level. That's an example…

(Soundbite of siren)

CHIDEYA: It looks like you've been attacked by an emergency vehicle. But just briefly.

Dr. PITTS: I'm okay. Still safe here. I'm sorry. I apologize for that. So that would be one useful tool. Also in San Francisco, people passed what's called a sick-day ordinance to require firms to provide sick days.

You know, in Chicago, city council passed a big-box ordinance, which would have required for all retail above a certain size to pay a certain wage and to provide certain benefits. Those are examples of laws that we passed at the local level that can also - improve the quality of jobs.

CHIDEYA: All right. Dr. Pitts. We want to thank you very much.

Dr. PITTS: Thanks for your time.

CHIDEYA: Dr. Steven Pitts is a labor specialist with the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

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