BPEA | 1973 No. 1

Changes in the Labor Market for Black Americans, 1948-72

Richard B. Freeman
headshot of Richard Freeman
Richard B. Freeman Ascherman Professor of Economics - Harvard University
Discussants: Duran Bell, R. A. Gordon, and Robert E. Hall
Robert Hall Headshot
Robert E. Hall Robert and Carole McNeil Joint Hoover Senior Fellow and Professor of Economics - Stanford University

1973, No. 1

the past two decades. In some aspects of market position-years of school
completed, occupational attainment, and income-blacks have risen relative
to whites. Other measures of economic status-employment, unemployment,
and labor force participation-reveal marked black-white
differences in annual and longer-run patterns of change. Some groups of
black workers-women and college-trained men-experienced extraordinary
economic advance compared to whites. While black-white differences
have not disappeared, the convergence in economic position in the fifties
and sixties suggests a virtual collapse in traditional discriminatory patterns
in the labor market.
This paper examines the secular and cyclical dimensions of changes in
the market for black labor since World War II and seeks to determine the
economic and social forces at work. It begins with a broad overview of
market developments during this period, highlighting four critical dimensions
of change: the secular improvement in the relative income and
occupational position of blacks; the more rapid relative advance black
women experienced compared with black men; the greater sensitivity,
compared with whites, of employment and income of black men to short-run changes in gross national product (GNP); and the decline in the labor
force participation of prime-age black men. The paper then turns to changes
in the ratios of income and employment of blacks to those of whites in
more detailed categories, disaggregated by region, education, occupation,
and age.’ The differential importance of changes in incomes within given
groups, shifts in employment across groups, and interactions in the overall
advance of blacks are evaluated by “decomposition of change” calculations.