The equalizing effect of strong labor markets: Explaining the disproportionate rise in the Black employment-to-population ratio

Earlier this year, the share of the adult Black population with a job—or the Black employment-to-population ratio (EPOP)—surpassed the share of the adult white population with a job for the first time in modern history. While the Black EPOP has since declined somewhat, it’s worth examining the reasons behind the sharp increase in employment over the pandemic recovery and the narrowing of the gap between Black and white workers in 2023. In my analysis, I conclude the following:

  • The Black EPOP appears close to the white EPOP in recent years in part because the Black population is significantly younger (i.e., more likely to work) than the white population. After accounting for their different age distributions, Black workers have significantly lower EPOPs than white workers.
  • However, the tremendous bounceback in the labor market was a significant boon for Black workers. While Black workers suffered greater losses in the pandemic recession, the employment gap narrowed because Black workers experienced a stronger jobs recovery than white workers.

Figure A shows the employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) for Black and white workers between January 2020 and June 2023. These data come from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is a survey of households that is subject to some volatility because of its relatively small sample size. That means more weight should be put on longer-term trends, rather than month-to-month values. Here, the trends are clear. We can see that the white EPOP was about 2.0 percentage points higher than the Black EPOP in February 2020 before the pandemic hit. In the depth of the pandemic recession, that differential grew to 3.0 percentage points. While the white EPOP bounced back a bit faster in the summer of 2020—widening the gap further—Black employment then started growing faster than white employment to such a degree that the Black EPOP surpassed the white EPOP earlier this year.

Black employment-to-population ratio sharply rises, hitting white employment-to-population ratio in 2023: Employment-to-population ratio for population age 16 and older, by race, January 2020–June 2023

Black White
Jan-2020 58.9% 61.3%
Feb-2020 59.3 61.3
Mar-2020 57.6 60.1
Apr-2020 48.7 51.7
May-2020 49.6 53.5
Jun-2020 50.8 55.5
Jul-2020 51.5 55.8
Aug-2020 52.5 57.2
Sep-2020 52.6 57.3
Oct-2020 53.7 58.1
Nov-2020 54.1 57.9
Dec-2020 54.0 57.9
Jan-2021 54.7 57.8
Feb-2021 54.2 57.9
Mar-2021 54.9 58.1
Apr-2021 55.2 58.2
May-2021 55.4 58.3
Jun-2021 55.9 58.2
Jul-2021 55.8 58.6
Aug-2021 56.2 58.7
Sep-2021 56.5 58.9
Oct-2021 56.3 59.1
Nov-2021 56.8 59.5
Dec-2021 56.6 59.7
Jan-2022 57.7 59.9
Feb-2022 58.1 60.1
Mar-2022 58.2 60.2
Apr-2022 58.6 59.9
May-2022 59.1 59.9
Jun-2022 58.5 59.9
Jul-2022 58.3 60.0
Aug-2022 57.9 60.1
Sep-2022 58.5 60.1
Oct-2022 58.4 60.0
Nov-2022 58.8 59.8
Dec-2022 58.9 60.2
Jan-2023 59.5 60.2 
Feb-2023 59.8 60.1 
Mar-2023 60.9  60.2
Apr-2023 60.0  60.3 
May-2023 59.6  60.2 
Jun-2023 58.9 60.4
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