This post is the third in a three-part series on “Oklahoma’s Unemployment Gap,” examining the persistence of racial disparities in unemployment. Part One introduced the unemployment gap and presents preliminary descriptive data on state labor market trends by race. Part Two explores underlying and immediate causes for the state’s black-white unemployment gap and suggests reasons for its persistence. Part Three evaluates solutions for addressing and closing the gap.
The first two posts in this series established the existence of a nation-wide, decades-old disparity in the unemployment rate between black and white workers. Black Oklahomans were unemployed at more than twice the rate (13.1 percent) of their white counterparts (5.9 percent) in 2010. The unemployment rate among black men is exceptionally high, about two and half times higher in Oklahoma. While the reasons for the disparity are numerous, our last post focused on two explanations around which evidence seems to converge: the high incarceration rate among blacks and discrimination in the hiring process. This post explores solutions for closing the unemployment gap in Oklahoma, with an emphasis on reducing incarceration rates and strategies for preserving equal opportunity employment.
One thing we know about the unemployment gap in Oklahoma is that black workers are jobless for much longer than white workers. Long-term joblessness is a severe impediment to employment. How do we get the long-term unemployed back on the job? One effective approach is to incentivize employers to hire them. Some Workforce Oklahoma centers participate in a temporary program that reimburses employers for hiring workers who have been laid-off or unemployed for an extended period. The program reimburses employers for ninety percent of the payroll costs of hiring a qualified worker for three months, and sixty percent of the costs for an additional six months. The employer wins because they get to write off the costs and risk of hiring an untrained new worker, and the employee wins by gaining employment and training under an employer that might not have hired them otherwise. Employers can also partner with Workforce Oklahoma centers to purchase bonds that cover the perceived risk of employing ex-offenders. Workforce centers provide myriad other valuable services to the unemployed, like job training and soft skills workshops.
Another thing we know is that at the root of the unemployment gap is the incarceration gap, and solving the former requires understanding the latter. The rate at which black men were admitted to prison for drug offenses was nearly five times higher than the rate for white men in Oklahoma in 2003. Overall, thirty-four percent of the state’s prisoners are being held for non-violent drug-related offenses – that’s about nine thousand people this past year. Aggressive prosecutions for drug offenses increased incarceration rates for all races during the 1980s and early 1990s, but the affect on minority incarceration rates was wildly disproportionate. By 1992, African-Americans and Hispanics comprised nearly ninety percent of all those sentenced to state prison for drug possession offenses, despite comparable usage rates of illicit drug among whites and blacks.
Some of the incarceration gap is a consequence of idiosyncratic sentencing laws. For instance, Oklahoma is one of thirteen states with sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses; five grams of crack cocaine triggers a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence versus twenty-eight grams of powder cocaine. The consequence of this discrepancy is that a person booked on crack cocaine possession (more likely to be a person of color) faces systematically stiffer penalties than a person booked on powder cocaine possession (more likely to be white). One recently initiated effort to streamline the criminal justice system in Oklahoma is the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Experts will research and evaluate criminal cases in the state and make comprehensive recommendations for reform with the ultimate goal of keeping first-time, non-violent offenders out of prison.
Finally, giving black workers an equal opportunity in the labor market means investing in diversity education and outreach in the public and private sectors. The private sector has made great strides in valuing and improving the diversity of their workforce. One example in Oklahoma is the Williams Company, which place a premium on maintaining a strong and diverse pool of employees by actively recruiting minority applicants and retaining minority employees. The public workforce benefits from similar diversity efforts through the Office of Personnel Management’s affirmative action employment plans. State agencies calculate and report their hiring rates by race and gender and annually asses any deficiencies in their staff. If agencies notice a gap, i.e., an absence or under-representation of non-white or female employees, they can take corrective action and reach out to those under-represented groups as they grow their workforce.
If Oklahoma wants to achieve employment parity for all of its workers, we have to allocate more resources to reaching out to the thousands of long-term unemployed and ex-offenders who struggle to find permanent well-paid work. The loss of wealth and income associated with extended unemployment, whether because of incarceration or persistent joblessness, devastates working families and disadvantages those workers in the job market for years to come. Through a combination of job-training and education and incentivizing employers, we can reduce an unemployment backlog that weighs on the state’s potential for productivity and prosperity.