Minority Women Are Winning the Jobs Race in a Record Economic Expansion

The United States economy on Monday hit a milestone, reaching its longest expansion on record. Just a decade ago, the nation was mired in a severe recession that had erased trillions of dollars in wealth and left millions of people out of work.

While the recovery has delivered uneven gains, Hispanic women have emerged as the biggest job market winners in an economy that has now grown for 121 straight months, assuming data released in coming months confirms continued growth.

Employment rates for Hispanic women between 25 and 54, prime working years, have jumped by 2.2 percentage points since mid-2007, the eve of the Great Recession. That’s the most of any prime-age working group. Black women came in second, adding 1.6 percentage points.

While employment rates have risen for minority women, they are far from the expansion’s biggest winners by other measures. The richest 1 percent of earners — who are heavily white and male — have notched outsize earnings throughout the expansion and recovery. The top 1 percent also received nearly 17 percent of the total first-year benefit from the Trump administration’s $1.5 trillion tax cut, according to the Tax Policy Center.

The expansion record won’t be official until growth data is reported over the coming months, but America has clearly experienced a long period of job market healing. Unemployment is near its lowest level in 50 years and prime-age employment rates have bounced back after falling off sharply during the 2007-2009 recession and its aftermath.

That progress has allowed the black work force to begin recovering from a painful recession. For Hispanic women, the recent gains are part of a more long-running trend toward higher employment, but one that has recently accelerated.

Starting around 2012 and picking up around 2014, Hispanic women between 25 and 34 began pouring into jobs, contributing substantially to the group’s overall progress. They now work at their highest rates on record. Hispanic women concentrate strongly in service jobs including health care, which have grown throughout the expansion.

“It does seem like there’s something structural happening,” said Ernie Tedeschi, policy economist at Evercore ISI.

Education is a big part of the story. While the share of whites and blacks age 18 to 24 who were enrolled in college actually dropped slightly between 2010 and 2016, the share of Hispanic women going for a degree jumped to 41 percent from 36 percent.

That’s an improvement from a low level — 48.9 percent of white women were enrolled, by way of comparison — but it has major job market implications. Employment rates climb steadily with educational attainment.

Mariah Celestine, 25, is a student at Columbia Business School and the first person in her family to pursue a master’s degree. She has a firsthand view of the cultural shift. Going back to school and leaving her salary at Bank of America was a difficult choice, because she was financially helping an aunt in New York and her extended family in Puerto Rico.

But economic opportunity seems to have been the spark that enabled a long-running cultural change to catch fire. While young women had been improving their education rates and delaying motherhood for years, their employment rate picked up in earnest only midway through the expansion, as available jobs outpaced available workers.

Black workers’ experience underlines the hot labor market’s role. While black women are also having fewer children, the group’s employment has historically moved in lock step with the economy. That pattern has held in this business cycle: As companies hired steadily, black workers’ labor force participation climbed.

Now, the question is whether those gains will prove sustainable. Policymakers sometimes point out that some minorities suffer from a last-hired, first-fired phenomenon. Black women saw their employment rate drop 9.4 percentage points from its peak to its trough in the last crisis. Hispanic women had a similar but more muted response, losing about 6 percentage points.

Even if that pattern repeats itself come the next downturn, the fact that minority women are finding jobs now could leave them with more experience for their future résumés and more money in the bank.

“Shoring up labor market experience and earnings is a good thing,” said Heather Boushey, executive director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “I think it is an unambiguous good.”

But it’s up in the air whether minority workers will see their wages catch up. Hispanic women with bachelor’s degrees or higher made $46,237 on average in 2017, compared with $55,450 for non-Hispanic white women and $85,855 for non-Hispanic white men, based on Census Bureau data.

The jobs available in today’s economy may favor women over men — health services, food and leisure jobs, and education have all been hiring aggressively and are all female-dominated — and women may be working more to patch up household earnings as men struggle to find their footing.

Regardless, the fact that minority women are steadily joining the ranks of the employed could spell good news for talent-hungry companies. Because the unemployment rate is historically low, economists have been concerned that businesses would run out of applicants, forcing them to abruptly raise wages and prices as they competed for a finite number of would-be employees.

As sidelined groups prove themselves ready to work, they could help to keep widespread labor shortages at bay.

“There is still room for employment-population ratios to grow: These are largely untapped segments of the labor force,” said Ms. Wilson at the Economic Policy Institute. “Since there are more black and brown people in the population, in the labor force, it’s reasonable to think that these are the groups in which you’ll see the growth.”

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