Skip to contents

In a Push for Race-Neutral Policies, Black Americans Will Be Left Behind, Experts Fear

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute says long-term investment in strategies that address race is critical to ensuring equity.

A new report by the Economic Policy Institute finds that economic progress for Black Americans has fallen short in the 60 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. (Associated Press)

As conservative lawmakers attempt to roll back policies aimed at a more equitable America, a new report emphasizes the need for race-conscious policies to improve economic conditions for Black Americans. 

Released this week, the Economic Policy Institute report says that race-neutral policies won’t adequately provide solutions to eliminate economic disparities. Although Black Americans have seen some improvements in income and jobs during the pandemic, the typical Black worker is paid 23% less per hour than a typical white worker. 

The report comes just weeks before the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28. In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made urgent calls to raise the minimum wage and build affordable housing. Although civil rights legislation designed to reverse the harm that Jim Crow legislation inflicted on Black communities removed some barriers, racial disparities in employment, wages, and homeownership persist today.

“The reality is we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked,” said Adewale Maye, author of the report and a policy and research analyst with the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program at Economic Policy Institute. “When we think of Dr. King and the March on Washington, [one of the] demands was a livable wage, and we’re still fighting for a higher minimum wage. These demands haven’t gone away, but the problem has persisted.”

Part of the issue, Maye argues, has been the lack of federal investment to pass legislation that focuses on racial equity to improve the lives of Black people. The other challenge? Conservative or high-ranking lawmakers pushing back against Democrat-backed policies.

Algernon Austin, economist and director of race and economic justice at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, cites the following examples:

  • The majority conservative U.S. Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden’s $400 billion loan forgiveness program, which would have particularly benefited Black Americans, who owe a disproportionate amount of the $1.7 trillion in national student loan debt.
  • Republicans and Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin failed to sign off on a permanent expansion of the child tax credit in the $1.7 trillion federal spending package last year. In 2021, lawmakers temporarily increased the child tax credit, which provided more than 36 million families with unrestricted monthly payments during the pandemic. This effort decreased child poverty and food insecurity because families were able to afford their household expenses.
  • Congress repealed a $4 billion debt relief program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — which includes Black, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian communities. Instead of reviving the program, they created a race neutral program to replace it, after a group of white farmers sued the U.S. agriculture secretary alleging the federal debt relief racially discriminated against them.

“[We] have to recognize that there’s significant opposition doing everything they can to block President Joe Biden’s initiatives,” Austin said. “He’s not the king. Just because he wants to do it doesn’t mean that he has the political power to actually do it.”

Despite the obstacles, there has been some economic progress over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pause on student loan payments, economic impact (or stimulus) payments, expanded unemployment benefits, and food and housing assistance have all helped to keep Black Americans afloat. 

Earlier this year, the Black unemployment rate reached historic lows because of the recent job recovery, the report showed. Low-wage workers, who are primarily Black and Hispanic workers, also experienced stronger wage growth. The racial wage gap, in some cases, has slightly shrunk. After the onset of the pandemic, the gap between Black and Hispanic workers in comparison to white workers closed by 4 percentage points, according to a March 2023 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

But more needs to be done to create long-term change.

In recent months, the Black unemployment rate has outpaced the national average. Last month, the Black unemployment rate stood at 6%, nearly double the national unemployment rate, according to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the rate is lower than it has been historically, where the Black unemployment rate has exceeded 10% over the past 50 years. 

The Biden administration, Congress, and the courts have to work together and be willing to address the needs of the people, Austin said. He recalled a recent act when Biden compromised with Republican lawmakers on the debt-ceiling bill to stave off an economic crisis. His administration also passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “the first significant gun safety legislation in decades,” Austin added.

But, if they can’t work together, “the administration will continue to push its agenda and try to bring some Republicans on board. … What’s left for the administration are executive orders and agency rules and regulations,” Austin added.

A road map to correcting structural racism

The report also examined whether federal policies implemented since the civil rights era have supported or adversely impacted the economic security of people of color and exacerbated long-standing racial disparities.

During times of economic crisis, such as the Great Recession and the pandemic, the federal government has swiftly stepped in to save the economy, however, the same investment, if not more, is needed to address “America’s oldest crisis — structural racism,” Maye said. 

Maye said the demands from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom serve as a road map for lawmakers to implement equitable policies. Some of the recommendations included raising the minimum wage to at least $17 an hour, creating stronger protections for workers to unionize, and expanding federal and affordable housing programs.

“There will always be another crisis. … Even lessons from the Great Recession showed us that we can get ourselves out of these crises,” Maye said. “These racial economic disparities have existed throughout the course of time. We’re going back 60 years, but they will continue to persist and evolve over time unless we make meaningful gains to addressing and redressing the structural problems.”

Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one — about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!