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January 30 2019

Why Was Black Teen Unemployment Lower in 1948?

by Charlotte Hays

In 1948  a black 17-year-old who had completed only the 9th grade and had no particular skills left home to be on his own. He was able  to find jobs and support himself. He made a huge success of his life.

His name is Thomas Sowell. In a must-read piece, Sowell laments that a young African American could not find work to set him on an upward path the way Sowell did 71-years ago.

Sowell writes that in 1948 the unemployment rate for black teenagers was at 10 percent, about the same as for white teenagers.  Today the black teen unemployment rate is 19 percent, and that is the lowest rate since 1972.

So what gives?

Sowell points out that it would be hard to argue that racial discrimination has become worse since 1948--discrimination, it must be admitted, has not been eradicated, but there is less now than seven decades ago.

The reason Sowell was able to find work and begin his path to a career is simple: there was no high minimum wage to bar an inexperienced youth with no skills from finding an entry level job.

Sowell writes:

In the United States, what was unusual about 1948 was that, for all practical purposes, there was no minimum wage law in effect. There was a minimum wage law on the books. But it was passed in 1938, and a decade of high inflation had raised money wages, for even low-level jobs, above that minimum wage.

Among the effects of a minimum wage law, when it is effective, is that many unskilled and inexperienced workers are priced out of a job, when employers do not find them worth what the law specifies. Another effect of a minimum wage law is that it can lead to a chronic surplus of job applicants.

. . .

the United States, as the minimum wage rate specified in the law began to be raised, beginning in the 1950s, so as to catch up with inflation and then keep up with inflation, the minimum wage law became effective in practice once again — and a racial gap in unemployment rates opened up and expanded.

Another factor: Schools were tougher in Sowell's youth:

As a black teenager, I was lucky enough to be looking for jobs when the minimum wage law was rendered ineffective by inflation. I was also lucky enough to have gone through New York schools at a time when they still had high educational standards.

Decades later, when examining the math textbook used by some young relatives of mine, who were living where I grew up in Harlem, I discovered that the math they were being taught in the 11th grade was less than what I had been taught in the 9th grade.

The opportunities open to my young relatives in Harlem — and to other young blacks elsewhere — were not nearly as good as the opportunities open to me back in 1948.

Seemingly compassionate policies, Sowell writes, backfired.

And yet these seemingly compassionate policies remain a rally cry because--well--they still sound virtuous even if they harm lives.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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