Is there a race wage gap in America?

A new database compares employment progress (or lack thereof) for minority civil servants in the country's 100 largest metro areas. Seattle's doing pretty well.
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Seattle skyline

A new database compares employment progress (or lack thereof) for minority civil servants in the country's 100 largest metro areas. Seattle's doing pretty well.

In April, Seattle was startled to learn that women, on average, are paid 23 percent less than men nationwide. According to the same report, the discrepancy in Seattle is the largest among the 50 most populous metro areas in the U.S.

Obviously, we have a gender wage gap. But do we also have a race wage gap?

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington comes new data that show a disparity between white and non-white employment nationally and in the Seattle area. On August 13, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Todd Gardner released a database he built together with the Urban Institute. It compiles nearly 50 years of data (1960 to 2008) which compare the racial makeup of government workers in America's 100 largest metros.

Gardner used census data that is not publicly available, and that addresses only employment in local government and income in two broad categories: high-wage and low-wage jobs. High-wage jobs are those paying above the median income in a given metro area. They typically include police and firefighter positions, as well as managers and executives. Low-wage government jobs include janitors, receptionists, secretaries and customer service representatives.

Nationally, the numbers of whites in central cities fell from 76.3 percent in 1960 to 41 percent in 2008. The proportion of high-wage local government employees who are white also dropped, from 90.4 percent to 55.9 percent. On average, local governments still have workforces which are 15 percent more white than their respective populations, a disparity that remains unchanged since 1960.

Overall, several trends are apparent in the nation’s large metro areas. The number of minority workers in high-wage jobs increased dramatically between 1960 and 1970, the period encompassing the Civil Rights movement. The numbers of African-Americans in high-wage jobs continued to climb after 1970, but blacks are still over-represented in low-wage jobs. Other minorities have been and remain under-represented in the high-wage positions where whites remain over-represented.

As usual, there is variation by region and metro. For example, in 2008 in Detroit, non-Hispanic whites made up 8.8 percent of the city's population, but held 34.9 percent of its government jobs, at salaries higher than the median income. In Buffalo, Boston and Philadelphia, whites have increasingly dominated high-wage jobs since 1980, while the number of African-Americans holding high-wage jobs has declined. The proportion of Hispanics and other minorities holding high-wage jobs in these cities is far below their percentage in the overall working-age population. Minorities in Midwestern metros have become less well-represented in the high-wage category since 1990, their numbers dropping to near 1960 levels.

But what about Seattle?

The database combines both Seattle and Tacoma as the “central cities” of our metropolitan area. Fifty years ago, the two cities were overwhelmingly white: 92 percent in 1960, and 88 percent in 1970. But that has changed. In 2008, the working-age population in Seattle and Tacoma was 67 percent white, 8 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 18 percent other minority.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau

In the charts above and below, the number 1.0 means “perfect” representation; that is, if African-Americans were 8 percent of the working population and held 8 percent of the high-paying jobs in local government, their proportion would be a perfect 1.0. Higher numbers mean over-representation. (For more charts, go here.)

The charts show that in winning high-paying government jobs in Seattle and Tacoma, blacks made significant gains in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2008, they represented 7.8 percent of the local government workforce, virtually the same as their proportion (7.6 percent) in the general working-age population. In 2008, whites held 72 percent of high-wage and 57 percent of low-wage jobs, compared to their proportion (67 percent) of the overall working-age population. Other minorities remain under-represented in high-paying jobs in Seattle-Tacoma. Indeed, Hispanics have lost ground since 1990, holding only 4.7 percent of the high-wage jobs in 2008, despite accounting for 7 percent of the cities' working-age population.

When it comes to low-wage local government jobs, the percentage of blacks has skyrocketed (to 16 percent), twice their proportion in the area's working-age population. Other minorities are also over-represented in low-paying jobs, holding 20 percent of the low-wage jobs while comprising 18 percent of the working-age population.

Compared to many cities throughout the country, Seattle and Tacoma have clearly done better at recruiting minority, especially black, workers into local government jobs. While whites in the Seattle-Tacoma area are still over-represented in high-paying positions, 92 out of the 98 "central cities" included in the data set show over-representation percentages that are even more skewed.

In terms of low-paying jobs, blacks and other minorities are significantly over-represented here. But the percentages are just as bad elsewhere in the nation. As for Hispanic workers, they lag behind whites and blacks in both high- (4.7 percent) and low-paying local government jobs (6.1 percent) compared to their proportion (7 percent) of the working-age population.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Finally, what does the City of Seattle’s senior leadership — the Mayor’s cabinet — look like? Using the city’s website as a guide — it lists the heads of the major city departments — there are 19 mayoral appointees. Of those, 58 percent are white, 16 percent are black, 10 percent are Hispanic and 16 percent are other. Seattle-Tacoma's working-age population breaks down this way: 67 percent white, 7 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 18 percent other. Seattle’s senior appointed leadership does, indeed, mirror the racial mix of its population.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bill Schrier

Bill Schrier

Bill Schrier retired in 2012 as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the City of Seattle. During his nine-year tenure, he directed information technology operations and policy, reporting directly to Mayors Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn. Bill is presently a senior policy advisor to the Chief Information Officer of the State of Washington. He lives in West Seattle with his wife Kathy and granddaughter Elizabeth.