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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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.