As Wages Rise, Black Workers See the Smallest Gains

Despite record-low unemployment, black workers’ weekly pay growth lags behind other groups

Black workers have received far smaller pay increases in recent years compared with other racial groups, despite unemployment for black Americans trending at historic lows.

For all U.S. workers, inflation-adjusted median weekly earnings rose 5.3% in the first quarter of 2019 compared with when the recession began in late 2007, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Labor Department data released Tuesday.

.. The disparity suggests black workers aren’t benefiting to the same degree as others from what is by several measures the best labor market in nearly half a century.

Black unemployment last year fell to the lowest level on records dating back to the 1970s. But the rate, an average of 6.8% in the first quarter, was well above the overall rate of 3.9%.

“In a hotter economy, it’s important to be looking at the structural issues that may be inhibiting black workers from seeing better gains.” said Valerie Wilson, an economist and director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy.

One of those is racial discrimination, she said. Other factors are lack of jobs near where black workers live and a reluctance of employers to hire those with criminal backgrounds. More prisoners are black than white, according to the Justice Department, despite black people accounting for about 13% of the U.S. population. And reports have shown black men receive longer sentences than white men for similar crimes.

Hispanic workers are likely benefiting from the effects of better educational attainment, Ms. Wilson said. As Hispanics are increasingly first- and second-generation Americans, rather than immigrants, they’re seeking more schooling and earning correspondingly higher wages.

Hispanic workers still earned the least among racial groups, an adjusted $692 a week. Black workers, while they’ve seen smaller percentage increases, earned a median wage of $711 a week.

Women earn less than men within all racial groups. That could be another factor holding back overall pay for black workers: More black women than men are employed. In every other racial group, male workers outnumber female workers. In the past decade, Hispanic men began earning more than black women.

From Coke to Macy’s, Pay for Typical Worker Takes Big Swings

Coca-Cola slashed its median pay figure by two-thirds after it finished shifting North American bottling operations to franchisees and acquired a controlling interest in African operations. The 2017 median worker was an hourly full-timer in the U.S. making $47,312, while last year’s made $16,440 as an hourly full-timer in South Africa.

In its proxy statement, Coca-Cola said it intends to shed the African operation again after making improvements and offered an alternative median employee excluding that unit: an hourly full-timer in the U.S. making $35,878, about 25% less than his or her 2017 counterpart. A company spokesman declined to comment further.

Don’t Blame Robots for Low Wages

So technological change is an old story. What’s new is the failure of workers to share in the fruits of that technological change.

I’m not saying that coping with change was ever easy. The decline of coal employment had devastating effects on many families, and much of what used to be coal country has never recovered. The loss of manual jobs in port cities surely contributed to the urban social crisisof the ’70s and ’80s.

But while there have always been some victims of technological progress, until the 1970s rising productivity translated into rising wages for a great majority of workers. Then the connection was broken. And it wasn’t the robots that did it.

What did? There is a growing though incomplete consensus among economists that a key factor in wage stagnation has been workers’ declining bargaining power — a decline whose roots are ultimately political.

Most obviously, the federal minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by a third over the past half century, even as worker productivity has risen 150 percent. That divergence was politics, pure and simple.

The decline of unions, which covered a quarter of private-sector workers in 1973 but only 6 percent now, may not be as obviously political. But other countries haven’t seen the same kind of decline. Canada is as unionized now as the U.S. was in 1973; in the Nordic nations unions cover two-thirds of the work force. What made America exceptional was a political environment deeply hostile to labor organizing and friendly toward union-busting employers.

The Stock Buyback Panic

Repurchases reallocate under-utilized capital to more efficient purposes.

Stock buybacks are the latest bipartisan piñata, whacked by politicians on the left and right who misunderstand capital markets. A refresher course is in order lest Congress stampede and undermine the investment needed for growth.

Repurchasing shares is simply one way a company can return cash to owners if it lacks better ideas for investment. Tax reform increased corporate cash flow by cutting tax rates and letting companies repatriate their cash held overseas by paying a one-time tax rate of 15.5%.

Using Federal Reserve data, Dan Clifton of Strategas Research Partners estimates that companies repatriated $730 billion in 2018. CEOs have deployed that for multiple purposes including new investment, debt reduction, pension contributions, employee bonuses, wage and dividend increases and stock repurchases.

This is a policy success. Mr. Clifton calculates that capital expenditures by S&P 500 companies grew about $75 billion in 2018, the fourth-biggest annual gain since 1991. Average wages are growing by at least 3.4% year over

.. The Senators complain that “when corporations direct resources to buy back shares on this scale, they restrain their capacity to reinvest.” But the money doesn’t fall into a black hole. An investor who sells stock into a buyback will save or reinvest the proceeds. Walmart gives shareholders cash, and capital markets redirect it to some other useful end.

Banning buybacks won’t create better investment options inside companies. Instead CEOs may spend more on corporate jets or pet projects with marginal economic returns. They could let cash pile up. They could raise dividends, which would also move cash toward better investments. But Messrs. Schumer and Sanders likewise want to “seriously consider policies to limit the payout of dividends, perhaps through the tax code.”