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Carolyn Schulman
Director, Strategic Initiatives, Center for Regional Economics
California and Public Policy
Carolyn Schulman is a director of strategic initiatives at the Center for Regional Economics. An experienced strategist and manager, Schulman develops and oversees programming related to small-business growth, capital access, and economic development. Previously, she held positions in public affairs and strategic communications at Finsbury and Ichor Strategies.
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Hidden Pathways: Public Sector Jobs and Opportunity for Minorities

By: Carolyn Schulman
January 06, 2017

A scene from the film Hidden Figures.

I recently saw the new movie Hidden Figures, based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, about the female African-American mathematicians who contributed to NASA’s Project Mercury in the 1960s. The parallel between these women’s perseverance and the national effort to put an American in space was compelling.

Given the time and place (pre-Civil Rights Act, segregated Virginia), I wondered how these women found opportunities at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at all. The answer was President Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802, requiring the defense industry to desegregate, followed in 1943 by Executive Order 9346, which prohibited discrimination in government employment.

The executive orders paved the way for African-Americans, especially women, to find good jobs in the public sector. Over time, the government became the most important source of employment for African-Americans. Because public sector jobs are more likely to be unionized than private sector work and subject to stricter anti-discrimination protection, they provide an attractive option, offering black workers better pay, stability, and more professional and managerial opportunities.

Indeed, public sector jobs have helped to narrow the race-based wage gap. Between 2005 and 2007, black male and female workers in the public sector earned 80 percent and 89.1 percent, respectively, of what white workers made in the public sector. Across all industries, the comparable figures were 74.3 percent and 85.4 percent.

Not surprisingly, African-Americans have been more likely to work in the public sector compared to non-black workers. Just prior to the Great Recession, 20.9 percent of black workers were in government, compared to 15.7 percent of non-black workers.

During and after the recession, many state and local governments responded to diminished revenue and budget shortfalls by cutting public-sector jobs. And because women and African-Americans were overrepresented, they were disproportionately affected. Between 2007 and 2011, state and local governments shed about 765,000 jobs. Women and African-Americans comprised about 70 percent and 20 percent of those losses.

Recent employment statistics indicate that the job market has recovered; the number of nonfarm as well as private sector jobs gained now exceeds the jobs lost during the recession. However, over the last decade, government employment remained essentially flat (-0.1 percent between 2006 and 2015). Minimal growth in federal and state employment (0.2 percent and 0.3 percent) has been offset by losses in local government positions (-0.3 percent).

Change in Employment, by Sector (2006-2015)





Total nonfarm




Total private




Total government
















Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Comparison of All Employees, Seasonally Adjusted, before and after the March 2015 Benchmark, Dec. 2, 2016

The December jobs report, released today, defines the national unemployment rate at 4.7 percent, far better than its Great Recession peak of 10 percent, and the markets are trading at all-time highs. Yet African-American unemployment is higher at 7.8 percent, and the government projects contraction in federal employment between now and 2024.

The inspiring stories of Hidden Figures would not be possible but for deliberate policies to expand opportunities for women and minorities in the workplace. As we prepare to inaugurate a new president amid widespread economic optimism, it is worth reflecting on the legacy of these policies and considering how to ensure opportunity for all workers. 


  • This is an informative analysis, inspired by the excellent film "Hidden Figures." The danger, as Ms. Karo notes, is the vulnerability of black employees to the likely contractions of the federal budget. The imbalance between the dependency upon the public sector and the possibilities of entrepreneurship poses risks to the well-being of African-Americans, whose family wealth thus lags for various reasons below others in the populace.

    Posted by Stephen Whitfield, 01/14/2017 (2 years ago)

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