(The Root) — In 1935, when Congress passed the Social Security Act, supporters declared it one of the pivotal moments in the country's history.
The act, which created a guaranteed income source for most American workers during retirement, was a declaration of the country's faith that the economy would not only rebound from the Great Depression but also flourish.
But for black workers, there was just one problem.
In order to secure the support of a contingent of Southern Democrats in Congress, the Roosevelt administration — architects of many of the policies that continue to govern work, pay and workplace conditions today — struck a deal. Domestic workers and farmhands — domestic work and farming were fields in which nearly two-thirds of all blacks were employed at the time — were excluded. A full 65 percent of black American workers got nothing. No guaranteed retirement. No guaranteed income in old age. The exclusion remained in place until the 1950s.
It's just another example of the uphill climb that black workers have faced throughout history. Indeed, the real story of work in the United States is one that includes slavery, along with other forms of exploitation and unfair treatment that have always rendered some workers better paid and more often recognized and rewarded. And those divisions have often occurred along racial lines. That history makes the state of the black worker in 2013 worthy of a closer look this Labor Day.
"Black unemployment is and has long been a crisis, but somehow unseen or at least largely misunderstood," says Algernon Austin, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute's Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy. "The worst levels of unemployment experienced by whites nationally correspond to the absolute best that blacks have ever experienced in the last 50 years.”
Still, some of the news is good.
* Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, a large share of the black population is employed or actively seeking work. In fact, when the Department of Labor released its first comprehensive, postrecession look at black workers, it found that in 2011, blacks made up roughly 13 percent of the nation's population and more than 11 percent of the country's workforce. That trend has continued.
* While black unemployment remains elevated, it is improving. In July, the most recent month for which detailed national information (pdf) is available, 12.6 percent of black workers (pdf), or roughly 2.35 million men, women and teens, remained unemployed. Black unemployment has edged downward for much of 2013. It has also dropped off sharply from a high of 16.5 percent, which it reached in January 2010.
* Educational-attainment levels, the term that economists use to describe just how far individuals go in school, continue to climb. In fact, nearly 85 percent of black Americans over the age of 25 have completed high school, and just over 20 percent have a bachelor's degree or more, according to the most recent federal data. Both figures have climbed considerably in the last two decades. In addition, the share of black students completing college or graduate degrees has nearly doubled.
* Education boosts most workers' wages and has, to a limited degree, narrowed the nation's racial income gap. Black workers have also become the most unionized portion of the American workforce. Although opinions vary about the value of union membership, when it comes to pay, the benefits are clear and indisputable.
But the fight continues for equal pay; access to new, developing and high-paying industries; and on-the-job advancement. Here are some ways that African Americans are still left behind in the workforce.
* For most of the last 50 years, black unemployment has remained about two times higher than the white joblessness rate, and in some major cities it engulfs more than a third of working-age black men (pdf). That trend continues in 2013.
* Also worth noting: Education has proved a limited buffer for black workers. Black workers with college degrees or more enjoy a lower unemployment rate than those with or without high school diplomas. But at every educational level, black workers remain unemployed at roughly twice the rate of their white peers. That's a pattern that persists even among those with bachelor's degrees or more.
* In fact, in 2012, the most recent year for which annual data are available, the unemployment rate for blacks with a college degree or more sat at 6.3 percent. That figure is equal to the unemployment rate experienced by white Americans with some college education but no bachelor's degree.
* Black workers remain clustered in a limited number of industries, including government, the service industry and retail — the last two of which offer some of the nation's lowest wages (pdf). And a continued spate of layoffs and furloughs in one sector that has consistently provided middle-class wages to black workers — state, local and federal government — not only has reduced the share of blacks who are working but also has cut into average weekly take-home pay.
* Government figures for weekly median wages of full-time workers point to another of those troubling racial economic inequalities. In June, the most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly wage for full-time salaried and hourly black wageworkers sat at $634, compared with $799 for white workers. Although white workers' wages overall climbed by a few dollars in the second quarter of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012 — because of slight gains by white women — black workers' wages (pdf, Table 2) fell by almost the same amount that white workers' earnings rose.
* Although the gender wage gap receives a great deal of annual attention, the difference between the median wages of men and women persists and takes on additional, economically damaging forms across racial lines (pdf). In 2012, the most recent period for which annual data are available, white women working full time earned a median wage of $719 each week, compared with $879 earned by their white male peers. Meanwhile, black men employed full time earned a median of $665 each week, while black women earned $599. Latinas working full time took home the nation's lowest median weekly wages: $521.
* In black families, women's wages have long accounted for a larger share of household income than in white families. But deindustrialization — the disappearance of manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs beginning in the late 1970s — has been particularly hard on the employment prospects of black men. Almost the same percentage of black women and black men are working (pdf; see "Employment-population ratio" for men and women), a situation that has never existed for any other racial or ethnic group. That small gap indicates that very few black families can survive on a man's income alone.
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.