BY LEN CABRERA / MAY 22, 2019
While the City of Gainesville rushes to implement equity policies to deal with all the inequities highlighted in the Racial Inequity Report, they’re making decisions based on old data and shoddy analysis. As I pointed out in my education column, correlation is not causation. Just because there are differences in outcomes between blacks and whites does not automatically mean the differences are caused by skin color or racism. Almost every measure of concern (unemployment, income, housing, transportation, etc.) is highly correlated with education, and since Alachua County has the largest black-white performance gap in the state, it’s actually expected that race would be correlated with any outcome determined by educational attainment.
Consider unemployment rates. According to the Inequity Report, unemployment rates for blacks and whites in Alachua County are 14.7% and 5.8%, respectively, for a gap of 8.9 percentage points (p42). The figures come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) 2015 5-year estimates for Alachua County (i.e., 2011 through 2015). The report also includes the 2010 5-year estimates, which show a gap of 6.6 percentage points. In fact, the unemployment gap based on 5-year estimates increased each year between 2010 and 2015 but decreased in 2016 and 2017 (before any equity measures were put in place). To illustrate how out of date the numbers are, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate in Alachua County was 3.1% in March 2019. The rate has been on a downward trend since a peak of 8.9% in July 2010. (The BLS numbers are not broken out by race at the county level.)
Saying the unemployment gap is caused by race alone would get a failing grade in any introductory statistics course. There’s also a gap in unemployment rates between men and women, averaging about 1.1 percentage points higher for men. That does not mean there’s some feminist conspiracy against men in Alachua County.
The Inequity Report tried to explain the racial unemployment gap with hand waving speculation:
“One possible contributing factor to this disparity is that some of the lower skill jobs in the area could employ residents without a higher level of education, but they are sometimes filled with college students who have some advantages over lower skill minority applicants in the eyes of employers. College students can be highly flexible with their schedule and usually have an advanced knowledge of technology that may reduce training costs.” (p28)
Notice the bait-and-switch, contrasting skilled vs. unskilled and then adding “lower skill minority applicants.” The skill-gap story might be true, but you can’t attribute it to race unless you control for skill level. The report makes no attempt to do so.
About ten minutes of looking through the ACS numbers helps quantify the difference in black-white unemployment. First, realize the unemployment numbers by race are for adults 16 and over. When you look at the unemployment rates by age groups, the 16-19 and 20-24 groups are always 2-3 times greater than other age groups. If there is a greater proportion of blacks age 16-24 in Alachua County, that could partially explain the unemployment gap. (The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey shows the national percentages of blacks and whites age 15-24 are 16.1% vs. 12.1%, respectively.)
Another important factor is education, especially finishing high school. The highest unemployment rate in the ACS data is always for people who did not graduate high school (16.9% in the 2015 5-year estimate). Based on Florida Department of Education numbers for 2016-2017, blacks in Alachua County are three times more likely to drop out of school than whites (9.8% vs 2.2%), 18 percentage points less likely to graduate high school (67% vs 85%), and 6 percentage points less likely to go to college (79% v 85%). So not only are a higher proportion of blacks age 16-24, a greater proportion of them are not in school. Therefore, they are more likely than whites to be in the labor force in the age group with the highest unemployment rate.
Sadly, the BLS data is not available by race at the county level (at least not easily found online). Nationally, the gap in unemployment between blacks and whites tightens considerably when looking at the 25-54 age group: 6.0% vs. 3.1% in the first quarter of 2019.
There are no quick fixes to the racial inequities in Alachua county. Even if a magic wand could equalize school performance immediately, the performance gaps from students in prior years will continue to drive equity in the county for decades.
The Inequity Report should have delved deeper into the numbers to explain the inequities, rather than just report them. The report’s authors compiled a lot of data, but the analysis is simplistic and presumes a desired outcome (“racial inequity… affecting the opportunities of minority individuals and families” p5). A more thorough analysis could reveal key differences driving the disparities beyond simply skin color. That would help guide city and county policy makers and help them decide what they can and can’t fix.