Closing out Black History Month, NPPC shares the history of the public sector and the path to equality it provided Black workers in the workplace. 

As early as 1802, state, local, and government jobs were among the first to open their doors to African American workers and–although far from perfect–establish policies against discrimination. Since then, these jobs have provided equity and economic mobility for Black families and communities for generations, granting them equal access to economic security and opportunities. Unlike the private sector, which often upheld structural racism, state and local government jobs have historically offered a leg up to millions of Black workers that serve their communities by breaking racial barriers and closing existing wealth gaps. 

A Historical Overview of Black Employment in the Public Sector

The United States Postal Service served as the blueprint for public sector job opportunities that would later become available to the Black community in the following decades. Its significance in Black public employment dates back to the early 1800s, as the USPS offered many formerly enslaved people career pathways, economic stability, and social status. What began as minor roles for formerly enslaved African Americans led to significant roles such as postmasters, letter carriers, and managers at post headquarters. 

William Carney, an escaped slave and Union Army soldier, became a postal worker in 1869. After dedicating 30 years to the postal service, he became the founding vice president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 18 in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Free-born Dr. Benjamin A. Boseman was the first black postmaster of Charleston, South Carolina, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873. He was also one of the two highest-paid African American Postmasters. 

Decades later, World War II created more opportunities and demand for public services, opening public transit, public schools, and public hospital job opportunities to Black workers. This demand gave African Americans the upper hand in pushing for anti-discrimination mandates. 

Today, over 3.4 million Black workers are employed by the United States state and local governments. As Black workers continue to push for job equity, they are more likely to join unions than other racial and ethnic groups, according to the Center For Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Union leadership and protection helped provide equity to African American workers by giving them access to better wages and benefits such as healthcare and retirement security and helped improve working conditions.

How The Public Sector Jobs – and Pensions – Close Wealth Gaps

Black households earn significantly less income than white households. The inequality in income leads to an imbalance in overall household wealth–including retirement wealth. However, public sector jobs help close this wealth gap by granting access to defined-benefit pensions for a secure retirement. According to AARP, Black employees are less likely to have access to a workplace retirement plan than white employees. Fifty-seven percent of white employees have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, compared to only 50% percent of Black employees. In the public sector, Black workers are significantly more likely to have access to a workplace retirement plan than those in the private sector. 

The racial wealth gap is smaller among workers in the public sector than in the private sector. Among those working in the private sector, Black households only earn 12 cents for every dollar made in White households. Depending on how it’s measured, White households have also been found to have between five and ten times the wealth of Black households. However, among households that work in the public sector, Black households hold 40.8% to 50.6% of white household wealth. 

In California, 72% of Black government employees join a retirement plan, primarily defined benefit pensions. While in the private sector, only 44% of Black workers particpate in a retirement plan. An Economic Policy Institutue analysis stated that the shift from defined benefit pensions to 401(K)-style plans “has been a disaster for lower-income, black, Hispanic, non-college-educated, and single workers.”

A recent working paper from Nadia Karamcheva at the Congressional Budget Office showed that the shift away from defined benefit pensions likely “contributed to the wealth inequality by race over time.” Moreover, research from the Federal Reserve shows that the shift from DB pensions to 401(k)s has accelerated wealth inequality among racial groups because wealth held in 401(k)s and IRAs are significantly more concentrated among white populations than pension wealth, which is more evenly distributed. 

Finally, new research by Nari Rhee (Director of the Retirement Security Program at UC Berkley) noted that pensions combat racial inequality. Rhee’s report also showed that senior citizens in California with access to pension income are “significantly less likely to fall into poverty.” This aids racial equity because retirement benefits are “higher and more racially equitable in the public sector” compared to the private sector. Nationally, “Black and Latino retirees with pension income were twice as likely to have incomes higher than 200% of the Federal Poverty level.” 

Other Public Sector Advantages for Black Workers

Unlike the private sector, one of the benefits of public work is that Black workers are less likely to experience employment discrimination within the workplace or during the hiring process. Because public hiring is subject to racial progress government policies and frequent scrutiny from upstanding citizens and officials, there is little tolerance for racism in the public workforce. 

Legislation such as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 protected federal government applicants and employees from discrimination based on race or color. These laws provided stronger anti-discrimination protection in government than in the private sector. 

Moreover, public sector jobs have historically provided more stable employment, offering economic security to Black households. This is crucial for Black households because they rarely inherit any kind of generational wealth and are subject to slow growth of wealth and savings. Job stability also allows for better future planning and gives the freedom to take smarter, longer-term financial risks. 

How Threats Against the Public Sector Hurt Black Workers

Today, Black workers comprise a large portion of the public workforce. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 48% of all Black women, and more than 21% of Black men hold positions in primary occupations of the state and local government–health services or public administration.

Unfortunately, due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, public sector jobs face real threats that would disproportionately affect Black families and communities. Before the recession, according to the CAP, 211,000 fewer Black employees worked for state and local governments in September 2020 than in September 2019.

Why The Public Sector Must Be Protected

To date, public sector jobs are the most significant means that exist for reducing structural racism and racial wealth gaps in the United States today. Public sector jobs have created pathways to the middle class for many Black families to build wealth and economic stability that never existed before–granting them equal access to decent pay, good health care, pension benefits, and job stability. Cutting the very jobs that deliver these benefits to an otherwise underserved community–which largely makes up the public workforce–is extremely detrimental. For decades, deliberate, intentional organizing by African Americans and allies in the labor movement forged a pathway for Black government workers to build economic wealth while also contributing to their own communities. The public sector must continue to be protected so that African Americans can have fair and equal access to the same basic necessities as their white counterparts. While the public sector is not the end-all solution to structural racism, it has served and continues to serve as a refuge for Black workers. Taking that away means taking away the right to fair economic opportunities.