Spotlight Exclusives

Race, Place, and Jobs: Reducing Employment Inequality in America’s Metros

Sarah Treuhaft, PolicyLink Sarah Treuhaft, PolicyLink, posted on

In Pittsburgh, a wave of baby boomer retirements is expected to leave the region with 80,000 more job openings than workers to fill them over the next decade. At the same time, 32,000 of the region’s workers are long-term unemployed, and unemployment is highest among black, mixed race, and Latino workers.

How to connect unemployed and under-employed workers of color to jobs in growing industries and industries with retiring baby boomers is a key question for Pittsburgh, but the region is far from alone. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce estimates that that by 2020 there will be 5 million more job openings in America than there are workers with the requisite skills to fill them. Yet, workers of color, particularly black workers, continue to face high levels of unemployment and inadequate access to relevant education and skills training.

Addressing continued unemployment for black workers and other workers of color is critical to families, employers, and the U.S. economy as a whole. The question is: how do we most effectively do that?

In some regions, geographically targeted strategies hold promise for addressing the challenge at scale, according to a new analysis  conducted by the National Equity Atlas team at PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at the University of Southern California. Using 2015 five-year pooled American Community Survey data on employment by race/ethnicity and neighborhood, we examined the spatial concentration of unemployment (spatial inequality) and the racial gap in unemployment (racial inequality) in the nation’s 150 largest metropolitan regions.

We found three important things. First, racial and spatial inequality tend to go together. There is a strong correlation between the level of racial inequality in employment in a metro and the extent to which unemployed workers live in high-unemployment neighborhoods, particularly unemployed workers of color. Many of the regions with the largest racial gaps in employment – places like Detroit, Cleveland, Reading, and Flint, where unemployment rates for workers of color are at least 10 percentage points higher than their white counterparts – also have the largest spatial inequities, with more than 25 percent of their unemployed workers living in high unemployment neighborhoods (neighborhoods where the unemployment rates are at least twice the metro average). Continued racial residential segregation contributes to this pattern.

Second, white unemployment is not spatially concentrated. On average, across the 150 largest metros, 7 percent of unemployed white workers live in high-unemployment neighborhoods, while 23 percent of unemployed workers of color do. Even in the metros with the highest unemployment rates for white workers, such as Modesto, Stockton, and Riverside, California, and Ocala, Florida, where white unemployment rates were 11 to 13 percent from 2011 to 2015, 7 percent or fewer of unemployed white workers live in high-unemployment neighborhoods.

Third, the high degree of concentration of unemployed workers of color in a small number of neighborhoods in some regions means that geographically targeted employment strategies could have a meaningful impact. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, for example, 47 percent of unemployed workers of color live in the region’s 13 percent of neighborhoods that are high-unemployment. If those nearly 3,000 unemployed workers of color in Fort Wayne became employed, the region’s 9 percentage point racial gap in employment would nearly disappear. In contrast, Tallahassee has a similar share of high-unemployment neighborhoods as Fort Wayne, but only 23 percent of its unemployed workers of color live in them. A spatially-targeted strategy would have a greater impact in Fort Wayne compared with Tallahassee.

The upshot: Place matters for unemployed workers of color, and it matters most in regions with large racial inequities in unemployment. In metros where unemployed workers of color live in a small number of neighborhoods, strategies that target specific neighborhoods for apprenticeships, job training and workforce development programs for in-demand occupations, improved transit connections to job centers, and more, could be effective in improving employment and economic outcomes.

The Brownsville Partnership in Brooklyn, New York demonstrates a promising approach. In a neighborhood where 44 percent of working-age residents are jobless, the community is partnering with local workforce development agencies and social service organizations to create a more responsive network of resources to help residents access employment throughout the region. Their ambitious job placement campaign has connected more than 1,200 residents to work.

Of course, while the concentration of unemployed workers of color in a small number of neighborhoods in some regions makes it possible to reach jobseekers and provide supports, unemployment is not fundamentally a place-based issue. Stemming high unemployment for particular racial/ethnic communities and in particular metros requires many “aspatial” strategies—from full-employment monetary policy, to investing in high-quality infrastructure projects (with targeted employment and training pathways), to sectoral workforce strategies and entrepreneurship supports. Removing barriers for groups facing high unemployment such as the formerly incarcerated and addressing persistent racial bias in hiring is also critical.

Understanding the racial and spatial contours of unemployment in a region can help local employers, government leaders, workforce systems and training providers, philanthropies, and community-based organizations develop more informed and potentially more scalable solutions. We hope that this analysis helps local leaders discern the value of neighborhood-targeted approaches for reducing racial inequities in employment and building stronger and more inclusive regional economies.

Sarah Treuhaft is a senior director at PolicyLink

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of SpotlightSpotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

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