Full Employment and Affirmative Action

UNCOMMON SENSE 7 © October 1997

By Manning Marable, Professor of History and Director, Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University and Advisory Board, National Jobs for All Coalition

What has inflamed white America’s opposition to affirmative action? More than anything else, white male fear. Fear makes possible the politics of opposition to programs that attempt to redress past and present patterns of discrimination based on race or gender. This fear reflects narrowing economic opportunity for many people in the U.S. who are accustomed to a rising standard of living. Recent political attacks on the aims and practices of affirmative action in employment have sought to mislead working class opinion with the claim that the pressures on white men stem from the unfair employment of minorities.

African-Americans are losing ground

No such significant displacement can possibly have occurred: the number of minority workers benefiting from affirmative action is minuscule in comparison to the millions of jobs that corporations have systematically exported or destroyed in recent years. If affirmative action had been sufficient to offset corporate downsizing, the black-white wage gap should have narrowed for young workers. On the contrary, for men 25 to 34 years old, that gap increased for high-school graduates and even more for college graduates between 1973 and 1989.1 This happened even as the wages of white men of that age fell. Unfortunately, the legal remedies of affirmative action began to be applied just as the stagnation of living standards began. Thus to understand the drive to abolish affirmative action, it is important to examine trends which have led to elimination of jobs and which reduce or threaten living standards for almost everyone.

The average American is losing ground

Working-class and middle-income people have steadily lost economic ground. Real [inflation-adjusted] income for the average family has stagnated over the past two decades.2 Only families with two earners have had an increase in income since 1973. All other families have lost income during this period.3

By all opinion polls, white males are the group most strongly opposed to affirmative action: they perceive themselves to be particularly vulnerable in the new world (and domestic) economic order. Since the early 1970’s, the real income of the full-time male worker has declined by 11 percent while that of women workers rose 13 percent as women’s access to jobs has improved and as men’s employment has been more adversely affected by industrial change.4 Then, too, for whatever reason, older men are far less likely than women to educate themselves in order to seek new employment opportunities. According to the Census Bureau, 1.6 million women older than 35 are currently enrolled in college. This is nearly twice the number of men that age so enrolled. (But even college-educated workers are losing ground.5) White, native-born men now make up less than one-third of the U.S. labor force. As women and minorities compete successfully for jobs traditionally held by white men, white men are inclined to blame the erosion of their opportunities on affirmative action policies.

The U.S. economy has been restructured: more jobs, lower incomes

What’s really at work here is the structural transformation of the U.S. economy over the past quarter century. Goods-producing jobs, which provided 32% of non-agricultural employment in 1973, were only 21% of employment in 1994. Service jobs rose from 68% to 79% in the same period. In this shift, the high-wage jobs lost were replaced by low-wage ones, such as those in retail trade. The fraction of jobs paying below 125% of the poverty level wage rose from 36 percent of jobs in 1973 to 41 percent in 1993.6 The effect of the structural changes on wages has been reinforced by reduction in the proportion of unionized workers and the decline in value of the minimum wage.7

High profits no longer mean high wages

Despite what Business Week calls “sizzling” profit growth in 19948 and continued economic expansion, private sector wages fell 1.9 percent in real terms in the year ending March 1995. This implies that new jobs paid, on average, even less than existing jobs.9 It is not hard to see why. Stable manufacturing jobs are being replaced by temporary jobs (the largest addition to new jobs in 1993 and 1994) and service jobs (waiters and bartenders were the second largest addition to jobs). So greatly has employment changed that there are now as many people processing poultry, “typically-minimum wage,” as there are steel workers. “No wonder real wages have yet to recapture their pre-recession peaks.”10 Even highly-trained workers like computer programmers are facing replacement by cheaper foreign workers.11 Global capitalism increasingly pits workers against each other, forcing down wages and fringe benefits, and creating nonunion workplaces.

Increased competition for poor jobs

Another source of employment problems has been the rise in the average level of unemployment. While in the mid-1960’s, it is estimated that there were 2.5 unemployed persons for every vacant job, by the late 1970’s, this ratio had grown to 5.0. In New York, there are roughly seven jobless people for every available job vacancy. In Harlem, where about 40 percent of the population is below the poverty line, nearly half of all people above age 18 are unemployed, underemployed and/or involuntarily outside the formal labor market. Competition is fierce even for low wage service employment. In Harlem’s fast food industry, for example, the ratio of job applicants to hires is about 14 to one.12

In May 1995, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 7.5 million Americans “officially” unemployed, with the black unemployment rate more than double that for whites. There were, however, 4.5 million part-time workers who wanted full-time work, but could not find it. There were also another 6.5 million people who wanted a job but were not actively looking, for a variety of reasons.13 When nineteen million people who desire employment aren’t able to get it, along with millions more who don’t earn enough to bring them and their families above the poverty line, an environment of political scapegoating and social hostility is created. Blacks, Latinos, women and others are blamed for declining real incomes, unemployment and the loss of job advancement. Yet overturning affirmative action programs and policies will do little to reverse these economic trends for white male workers. While saying no to affirmative action may be one way for disappointed workers to handle their resentment, the basic forces that are destroying jobs and lowering wages will persist even if affirmative action is abolished.

This is why the advocates of affirmative action must carefully link their struggle for social justice with efforts to achieve full employment. I say “carefully” precisely because many neoliberals and conservatives want to sacrifice race-based reforms in favor of class-based programs which address economic disadvantage. Affirmative action is not an anti-poverty program. It was never designed to create jobs and it is no substitute for job creation.

But the interests of people who have traditionally experienced discrimination and the concerns of those who are fearful of losing their jobs are connected. Unless the total number of decent jobs is significantly increased for everybody, millions of white male workers will tend to see affirmative action as the enemy. Progressive political initiatives like affirmative action are always more acceptable when economic opportunities are expanding.

1. Lawrence Mishel and Jared Bernstein, The State of Working America, 1994-95, p. 188.

2. Economic Report of the President 1994, Table B-31

3. Mishel and Bernstein, p. 34.

4. Economic Report of the President.

5. Mishel and Bernstein, p. 143.

6. Calculated from Mishel and Bernstein, Table 3.10. It would have taken $6.93 per hour, working year-round, full-time in 1993 to earn the official poverty income for a family of four, but many people earning a sufficient hourly wage were working only part-time.

7. See Uncommon Sense #10 on the minimum wage.

8. February 27, 1995, p. 43.

9. Chemical Bank, Financial Digest, July 24, 1995.

10. Financial Digest, January 23, 1995.

11. “Skilled Workers Watch Jobs Go Overseas,” New York Times, August 28, 1995.

12. Katherine Newman and Chauncy Lennon, “The Job Ghetto,” The American Prospect, Summer, 1995.

13. See Uncommon Sense #4, “Employment Statistics: Let’s Tell the Whole Story.”
Editor: June Zaccone, Economics (Emer.), Hofstra University