The most surprising number in Friday’s jobs report

Civilian unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, for black Americans and for the overall U.S. population (January 2000 to May 2018) (Alyson Hurt/NPR)

Civilian unemployment rate, seasonally adjusted, for black Americans and for the overall U.S. population (January 2000 to May 2018) (Alyson Hurt/NPR)

The U.S. unemployment rate dipped to 3.8 percent last month, an 18-year low. But a more dramatic drop occurred in black unemployment, which fell to a record low 5.9 percent, suggesting that African-Americans are also benefiting from job gains in this booming economy.

Even more striking, the gap between black and white unemployment has never been smaller, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Overall, the black unemployment rate dipped dramatically in May — falling more than half a percentage point from April’s 6.6 percent. Generally, month-to-month changes in unemployment are more likely to stay within a smaller range, around a tenth of a percentage point.

“Looking at the trend for blacks or African-Americans, it is very clear that their unemployment rate has fallen markedly over the past seven years,” said Evan Cunningham, an economist at the BLS. “The decline thus far in 2018 looks to be a continuation of this same trend.”

There is still a significant gap when it comes to who gets jobs by race. Over the years, economic reports have struggled to find a single reason why.

In a 2017 Federal Reserve study, researchers suggested several potential reasons. The study looked at how far along people of color got in schools, the disproportionately large number of working-age black men serving jail time and outright institutional discrimination as factors.

While each of these reasons could explain a part of the unemployment gap by race, researchers said none of them could explain the jobless rate gap by itself.

The biggest change for black unemployment could be seen in employment of black teenagers, ages 16 to 19. In April, the black teen unemployment rate was an eye-popping 29 percent, and it dropped to 19.8 percent in May. Employers also hired more black women, whose unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent in May from 5.1 in April.

It’s normal for black unemployment rates to bounce around month-to-month owing to the sheer difference in working populations between whites and blacks, said Janelle Jones, an economic analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

There are 121 million white workers and 19 million black workers, according to the data.

“That’s why it’s so important to disaggregate by race. There are significantly less black workers than white workers,” Jones said.

Still, Jones said May’s numbers aren’t just statistical fluff. The black unemployment rate has been steadily dropping since 2010, when at one point the unemployment rates for black men were in the double digits in every age category. Today, Jones said, black workers are still recovering.

“Historically disadvantaged workers are left at the mercy of the labor market,” she said. “When things take a downturn, it’s worse for black workers, and when things start to pick up, it takes longer for black workers to really feel that recovery.”

In January, President Trump took credit for historically low unemployment numbers for African-Americans in his State of the Union address.

“African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded,” he said during the speech.

While Trump’s comments are true, unemployment figures have been falling steadily during the economic recovery for all Americans in nearly every age and racial group.

The Labor Department has data only on black unemployment going back to 1972, decades after the agency started tracking unemployment generally.

The rate of unemployment for white Americans also fell slightly to 3.5 percent from 3.6 percent in April, but the unemployment rate has hovered around those numbers for approximately eight months.

Charlotte Norsworthy is an intern on NPR’s Business Desk.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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