Blacks and Latinos squeezed hardest, as draw of city life faded for non-college workers

Stories of people who decided to move out of their home country to go to live in a large, expensive city are not novel news. But what if the efforts made by those workers with nothing but their desire to have a better life, to pay off for making a living, to grasp a shot at better jobs and bigger paychecks, fade away?

This is the sad truth, the allure of common city lives which has faded in recent years for workers without college degrees, with opportunities diminishing the most for Black and Hispanic workers, according to new research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor.

Hundreds of people line up outside the Kentucky Career Center, over two hours prior to its opening, to find assistance with their unemployment claims, in Frankfort, Kentucky, U.S. Image credit REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Autor recently revisited a paper he published last year finding that employment of workers without college degrees shifted between 1980 and 2015 from middle-wage jobs to low-paying jobs. When he analyzed the racial breakdown of the data, he found out that minority workers were more vulnerable to the shift because they were more likely to be employed in service jobs and less likely to be in professional, technical or managerial work.

“As the middle hollowed out, (minority workers) were more exposed to middle-skilled work, and net of that, they were also over-represented at the low end and under-represented at the high end,” Autor explained when interviewed by the media.

City living continued to pay off for most people with college degrees, but with one major exception: Black men.

College-educated urban Black men saw their employment in middle-wage jobs drop and their employment in low-paying jobs rise, mirroring the trend experienced by workers without college degrees, Autor found in the paper, the first in a series of briefs by the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future.

David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics. Image credit MIT Economics

His findings are consistent with separate research done by economist Raj Chetty finding Black men raised in poor urban neighbourhoods are more likely to end up in lower-paying jobs.

Adding to this miserable discovery, the coronavirus crisis doesn’t stop threatening to exacerbate the challenges for Black and Hispanic workers by wiping out many of their jobs, Autor added.

“In the short run, we just have massive amounts of job loss,” Autor pointed out.

After movie theatres, offices, restaurants, bars and retail stores shut down to slow the spread of the virus, it lowered the demand for servers, bartenders, janitors and salesclerks - low-wage service jobs often held by workers of colour.

Many businesses are shutting down again in some cities after a resurgence of the virus. Others are operating with reduced staff.

During stronger economic times, workers without college degrees might find decent jobs outside of big cities, but it’s not clear that more of those opportunities are becoming available during the downturn, Autor concluded.

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