Blog Posts > Construction/Extraction Sector May Explain Income Disparities Between White and Black Families
July 12, 2010

Construction/Extraction Sector May Explain Income Disparities Between White and Black Families

African Americans in West Virginia earn significantly less than their white counterparts. From 2006 to 2008, the median family income for white West Virginians exceeded that of black families by over $17,000.  

Obviously, numbers like this – since they are consistent with national trends – are far from surprising. And clearly, many factors are at play here; the gap between the earnings of white folks and black folks cannot be explained away by one correlation or even a handful. 

However, perhaps one contributor to this income disparity that may go unnoticed is the distribution of jobs across various economic sectors – by race. Here is just a glimpse of the state’s labor market:   

Type of Occupation

Percentage of White Employment

Percentage of African American Employment

Construction, Extraction, Maintenance and Repair Occupations

 

 

2005 – 2007

13.2%

6.8%

2006 – 2008

13.4%

4.8%

Service Occupations

 

 

2005 – 2007

17.1%

26.6%

2006 – 2008

17.2%

30.0%

 U.S. Census Bureau. 2005-2007, 2006-2008 American Community Survey. Analysis by Pete Wilmoth.

To me, what jumps off the page is the large disparity between white and black jobs in construction and extraction. By some Census data (2006-2008), white worker percentages in this sector nearly triple those of black workers. And at best, the percentage of white workers in construction and extraction is almost double that of African Americans (2005-2007). 

Unsurprisingly, black workers tend to work more in service occupations. In fact, nearly twice as many African Americans work in service occupations compared to white workers. 

How does this contribute to the racial disparities in income?

Simply put, jobs in construction and extraction pay better than service-oriented work. Take the following example of two such jobs in West Virginia. 

Occupation

Hourly Mean Wage

Annual Mean Wage

Retail Salesperson

$10.67

$22,180

Construction Laborers

$15.22

$31,660

 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Selected West Virginia, May 2009, Retail Salesperson, Construction Laborers.

By these measures, construction work in West Virginia pays about 30 percent more than a position in retail. While these two jobs require difference skills to carry them out, they are both available to workers without a college degree.

Whatever the cause of this extreme under-representation of black workers in the construction/extraction sector, anyone seeking to understand why African American families in West Virginia remain consistently poorer than whites would be wise not to overlook this phenomenon.

To help remedy this problem, the federal and state governments should look to improve education and job training programs that specifically target communities of color. They should also address labor market discrimination, and providing transitional job training for the formerly incarcerated. 

Another good step would be for the state to create an Office of Minority Affairs. In 2010, the WV House of Delegates passed the appropriate legislation, but the State Senate unfortunately refused to follow suit. Hopefully they follow through next year.

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