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Growing inequality in black wages in the 1980s and the emergence of an African-American middle class


  • Bennett Harrison
  • Lucy Gorham


Much recent scholarship and popular discussion posits a substantial movement of African-American households into the “middle class.” Yet over the course of the 1980s, the proportion of individual black wage-earners receiving “annualized” (work experience-adjusted) wages and salaries in excess of about $35,000-three times the poverty line-fell by 22 percent, even as the share of African-Americans earning below the poverty line increased by a fifth. This was true for all age groups, and even for persons within the black community who had completed four or more years of college. The growth of low wage employment was most pronounced for black men between the ages of 25 and 34, among whom the incidence of below-poverty-level employment doubled. Black women aged 35-54 experienced relatively greater progress than any other part of the African-American community, but their gains lagged far behind those of comparable white women. We speculate on possible explanations for these developments, on the basis of which a potential public policy agenda is examined.

Suggested Citation

  • Bennett Harrison & Lucy Gorham, 1992. "Growing inequality in black wages in the 1980s and the emergence of an African-American middle class," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 11(2), pages 235-253.
  • Handle: RePEc:wly:jpamgt:v:11:y:1992:i:2:p:235-253
    DOI: 10.2307/3325366

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Julianne Malveaux, 1985. "The economic interests of black and white women: Are they similar?," The Review of Black Political Economy, Springer;National Economic Association, vol. 14(1), pages 5-27, June.
    2. James J. Heckman, 1989. "The Impact of Government on the Economic Status of Black Americans," NBER Working Papers 2860, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Vietorisz, Thomas & Harrison, Bennett, 1973. "Labor Market Segmentation: Positive Feedback and Divergent Development," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 63(2), pages 366-376, May.
    4. Smith, James P & Welch, Finis R, 1989. "Black Economic Progress after Myrdal," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 27(2), pages 519-564, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Virginia Parks, 2011. "Revisiting Shibboleths of Race and Urban Economy: Black Employment in Manufacturing and the Public Sector Compared, Chicago 1950–2000," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 35(1), pages 110-129, January.

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