News Release

Black men & year-round idleness: An employment crisis ignored

New report examines the high levels of joblessness and year-round idleness plaguing African-American men

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Northeastern University

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(7-22-04) BOSTON, Mass. – Against the celebratory backdrop of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown versus Board of Education, a new labor market study finds that many of the nation's African-American men face growing joblessness and year-round idleness problems.

The new report, titled "Trends in Black Male Joblessness and Year-Round Idleness: An Employment Crisis Ignored" and prepared for the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago, Ill., Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies and economist Andrew Sum analyzed both long-term and recent employment developments among the nation's black males, finding that, since the era of Civil Rights some five decades back, African-American men have suffered a serious decline in labor force attachment and participation.

Employment rates among black male teens and young adults ages 16 to 19 have dropped considerably over the past 50 years, the study found. In 1954, a slight majority — 52 percent — of black male teens worked, a rate slightly in excess of their white peers. By 2003, however, only one of five black male teens was employed in a typical month – just 20 percent — only half the employment rate of white male teens. Among 20 to 24 year old black males, employment rates also have declined considerably from their peak values of 77 to 83 percent in the mid to late 1960s to dramatic 50-year lows more recently. During 2003, for example, just 56 percent of such young black men ages 20 to 24 was employed.

Among older black men, the same dramatic declines were noted over time, according to the report. While the employment rates of black men rise from their late teens through their mid 30s, high levels of joblessness prevail among these men into their late 20s (30 percent of 25 to 29 yearold black men were jobless in 2003, for example), then rise sharply as they reach their mid-50s. One of the most disturbing findings was the high share of black males ages 20 to 64 that were jobless year-round. In 2002, one of every four black men in this age group – a full quarter of the entire population within this wide age range — was idle all year-round, up from 20 percent in the peak labor market year of 2002.

The report's key findings also include:

  • Among the nation's black teens, fewer than 20 percent, age 16 to 19, were employed during 2003, an employment rate just half that of white teens;
  • Among 20 to 24 year old black men, employment rates averaged just 57 percent during the past three years, compared with an average of 80 percent employment in the late 1960s. The E/P (employment to population) ratio of young black men in 2003 lagged well behind the white male employment rate by nearly 20 percentage points;
  • In 2002, a full quarter of African-American men ages 20 to 64 were not employed at any point during the year. The year-round joblessness rate for black adult males in 2002 was twice as high as that of white and Hispanic males;
  • The year-round idleness rate for black men varies by age, educational attainment, and geographic location. Idleness rates in 2002 ranged from a low of 18 percent for those ages 35 to 44 to a high of nearly 42 percent for those 55 to 64. Forty-four percent of black men with no high school diploma were idle year-round versus 26 percent of high school graduates and only 13 percent of those with a bachelor's or higher degree.
  • In every educational group, black males living in central cities were more likely to be idle year-round than their peers in the suburban segments of metropolitan areas.

"Developing effective public policy responses to this growing problem of black male joblessness and idleness will not be easy," lead author and economics professor Andrew Sum said. "There is no one or two simple strategies that will markedly alter the employment situation of black males, especially those with no formal schooling beyond high school. But a diverse array of macro- and micro-economic strategies, both short- and long-term, will be needed to substantively boost the employment rates of members of this group, especially among the young."

Sum and his colleagues recommend a series of initiatives to counter the worsening of this trend among African-American men, including job creation programs, expansion of school-to-career transition programs, social and economic investments in literacy and numeracy programs to develop skills while in schools, and a concerted effort to improve employability and earnings among black men.


Northeastern University, located in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts, is a world leader in cooperative education and recognized for its expert faculty and first-rate academic and research facilities. Through co-op, Northeastern undergraduates alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, giving them nearly two years of professional experience upon graduation. The majority of Northeastern graduates receive a job offer from a co-op employer. Cited for excellence in programs integrating classroom and work place experience two years running by U.S. News & World Report, Northeastern was named a top college in the northeast by the Princeton Review 2003/04. In addition, Northeastern's career services was awarded top honors by Kaplan Newsweek's "Unofficial Insiders Guide to the 320 Most Interesting Colleges and Universities," 2003 edition. For more information, please visit

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