DC’s Labor Market is Failing Young Black Workers

A person’s early 20s is a critical time to acquire workplace skills, connections, and experiences that can help lay the groundwork for a successful career. Yet striking racial inequities in DC’s labor market disrupt young Black workers’ (ages 20 to 24 years old) ability to make ends meet and thrive long-term. For example, the Black-white unemployment gap for this age group is about five-to-one, compared to about two-to-one among their peers nationwide.[1] Lawmakers must ensure that young Black workers can fully participate in DC’s economy, including by investing in quality jobs programs with wrap-around supports to help them overcome systemic barriers.

The Labor Market Has Recovered for Young Workers Post-COVID, but Deep Racial Disparities Persist

Historically, workers ages 16 to 24 across the nation face higher rates of unemployment and their employment prospects are more subject to labor market volatility than older workers. The COVID-19 recession hit young workers especially hard, with their peak unemployment rate reaching 27.4 percent in April 2020. In part, young workers’ overrepresentation in the hardest hit industries drove their disproportionate job loss during the pandemic.

As the economy has recovered, the labor market has bounced back to pre-pandemic conditions for young people in the US and in DC: in 2023, annual labor market indicators for workers ages 16 to 24 were similar to what they were 2019, or better. However, pooled data for the years 2021 to 2023 that allow for disaggregation by race show deep racial disparities for DC’s young adult Black workers and have for the better part of a decade (Figure 1).

Young Black workers struggling to get and keep employment face wide-ranging barriers. Focus groups led by DC Action, with support from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, found that these barriers include experiencing housing instability, identifying as transgender, or being pregnant or parenting, among others.[2] Young Black workers shared that while they had big career dreams, they lacked mentorship, experienced workplace discrimination, or could not find work.

In addition to the barriers shared by focus group participants, factors such as struggling with a mental health condition and having a disability can keep young people out of the labor market. Young Black residents also disproportionately experience homelessness and justice system involvement due to a history of exploitation, underinvestment, and structural barriers to work that disproportionately harm Black residents.

Fewer Young Black Adults Have, or Are Seeking, A Job Than White Young Adults

The young adult labor force participation (LFP) rate measures the share of all 20- to 24-year-olds who either have a job or are seeking one, signaling overall economic health. Although DC is on par with the US for overall young adult LFP rates, racial disparities are starker in DC. From 2021 to 2023, only 66.1 percent of DC’s young Black adults participated in the labor market compared to 77 percent of young white adults—a gap that is 6.3 percentage points larger than the national gap.

DC’s Black-White Unemployment Gap Among Young Adults is Nearly Five-to-One

The young adult unemployment rate reflects the share of 20- to 24-year-olds in the labor market who do not have a job and are actively looking for work. DC’s average young adult unemployment rate was 9.1 percent from 2021 to 2023, compared to 8 percent nationally. DC’s racial unemployment gap, however, was far worse than the nation’s. Average unemployment among Black young adults in DC was 16.1 percent, compared to just 3.1 percent among white young adults—a gap of nearly five-to-one.[3] The US Black-white unemployment gap among young adults was about two-to-one.

The harms of unemployment can be profound for young Black workers in the short-term. Focus group participants shared that when unemployed, they could not meet their basic needs, experienced housing instability, resorted to unsafe work, or struggled with depression and suicidal ideation.

About Half of DC’s Black Young Adults Are Employed, Compared to Three-Quarters of White Young Adults

The young adult employment-to-population ratio (EPOP), or the employment rate, measures the share of all 20- to 24-year-olds with jobs. In DC, the average young Black adult employment rate was just 55.5 percent from 2021 to 2023, meaning that just over half had a job. By comparison, the average young white adult employment rate was about three-quarters. The US Black-white young adult employment gap was narrower compared to DC during this period, signaling greater equity in employment rates among young people nationwide.

DC’s Broken Economic Model for Youth Has Dire Long-Term Consequences

Labor market inequities among young adults have negative ripple effects, holding back their economic security and DC’s economy. Experiencing unemployment early on can lead to reductions in wages that are still evident in a worker’s 30s and early 40s. Among workers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds—who, in DC, are likelier to be Black—unemployment in one’s 20s is associated with lower job quality at age 29, threatening to keep Black workers stuck in jobs with low wages, few benefits, or too few hours. By their 30s, young people who are connected to work or school in their teens and early 20s are more likely to be employed, own a home, and report being healthier than their disconnected peers.

Lawmakers Can Build a More Inclusive Economy for Young Black Workers through Targeted and Effective Programs

A robust economy for all DC residents requires that DC’s Black workers are fully included, both as young adults and beyond. Lawmakers can begin to redress these harmful inequities by:

  • Ensuring that existing public workforce programs are reaching young people who need them most;
  • Providing robust and tailored supportive services in workforce programs to bolster the success of young Black workers facing employment barriers;
  • Promoting positive employment and earnings outcomes for young Black workers by investing in a rigorous evaluation of the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program; and,
  • Investing in a job guarantee program for DC’s young workers aimed at advancing racial equity and mitigating structural barriers to employment.

[1] All employment-related data come from Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of Current Population Survey microdata from the US Census Bureau.

[2] Over Summer 2023, DC Action led four youth focus groups aimed at understanding the labor market experiences of young District residents facing structural barriers to employment. The focus groups included a total of 26 young people, ages 14- to 24-years-old. Eighty-eight percent of these young people identified as Black, and 90 percent identified as a person of color. DCFPI and DC Action will publish its full findings in a forthcoming report.

[3] Due to small sample sizes, the 3.1 percent unemployment among white young adults, and the five-to-one Black-white young adult unemployment gap, should be viewed with caution. However, CPS microdata for youth workers ages 16 to 24 years old—a larger data set that includes teenage workers—affirm a Black-white unemployment gap of 4.9-to-one from 2021 to 2023. Moreover, as discussed in previous DCFPI analysis, DC has a long-standing and significant Black-white unemployment gap.