Do All Bay Area Residents Have Access to Employment Opportunities?

July 27, 2022

Our analysis finds that Native American and Black working-age adults in the Bay Area are most likely to be locked out of job opportunities and have higher rates of joblessness and unemployment. Women of color — particularly Native American, Black, and Latinx women — also face barriers to fully participating in the region’s economy.

By Ian Castro, Michelle Huang, and Jamila Henderson*

Employment is the primary source of income for the vast majority of working-age people, and unemployment is strongly associated not only with poverty but also with physical and mental illness, drug addiction, and suicide. Inequities in employment tend to be connected to social and economic factors such as discrimination, underinvestment in community assets, and lack of educational opportunities. Research shows that these challenges negatively impact people of color. Ensuring equitable access to employment could help reduce racial gaps in financial security and wealth-building, boost workers’ bargaining power, and create a stronger economy.

We recently added employment measures to the Bay Area Equity Atlas to democratize data on employment by race, gender, nativity, ancestry, and geography for the nine-county region. The indicator features employment trends between 2000 and 2019, the most recent year for which this data is available. The data for these measures represents working-age adults between 25 and 64 years old, except for data shown in the trend, ranking, and map breakdowns, which reflects trends for people who are 16 years old or older. This analysis highlights the four measures of the new employment indicator: labor force participation, employment-to-population ratio, joblessness, and unemployment.

Native American and Black adults in the Bay Area are most likely to face barriers to full employment

The labor force participation rate reflects the number of people who are either employed or unemployed but actively seeking work divided by the total civilian noninstitutional population. This measure is key to understanding who is actively participating in the labor market. About 80 percent of the region’s prime working-age population (those between the ages of 25 and 64) were in the labor force. This figure was true for all but two racial/ethnic groups, Native American and Black: just 71 percent of Native American working-age adults and 75 percent of Black working-age adults participate in the labor force. Since 2000, labor force participation rates increased for all racial and ethnic groups except for Native Americans, for whom the rate declined by five percentage points. Latinx adults experienced the largest increase in labor force participation, from 71 percent in 2000 to 82 percent in 2019.

We found a similar trend in the employment-to-population ratio, which measures those currently employed divided by the total working-age population. This ratio is important because it shows the employment status of the whole population, including those who are discouraged or otherwise not seeking work. The economic and social impacts of the pandemic have prevented many potential workers from working or looking for jobs due to a fear of contracting Covid-19, needing to provide childcare, recovering from illness, or retirement. The labor force participation rate does not include people in these situations. 

The employment-to-population ratio was similar for most racial/ethnic groups (eight in 10 adults), but it was lower for Native American and Black working-age adults (about seven in 10).

Native American and Black workers had higher rates of joblessness, which includes the unemployed seeking work and those who have given up looking

Conversely, the joblessness rate looks at the overall working-age population who are not employed for any reason, voluntarily or otherwise. This is defined as the number of working-age adults without employment divided by the total noninstitutional working-age population. Unlike the unemployment rate, which only reflects people who are actively participating in the labor force, this measure reflects the total share of the population who are not employed, whether or not they are looking for work. In terms of joblessness, Native American and Black working-age adults had the highest jobless rates by far (34 and 30 percent, respectively). Regionwide, however, only one in five working-age adults were experiencing joblessness. Rates for Asian or Pacific Islander (API), Latinx, multiracial, and white adults mirror the overall rate for the region. Overall, joblessness rates decreased from 2000 to 2019 for all racial and ethnic groups except for Native Americans, who experienced a 4 percent increase in joblessness during this period. In contrast, Latinx adults experienced the largest drop (a decrease of 11 percent) in joblessness since 2000, followed by API adults (a decrease of 7 percent).

The unemployment rate is different from joblessness. Unemployment is calculated as the number of adults without jobs who are actively seeking work divided by the total labor force (which includes those with jobs and those actively seeking employment). Improvements in the unemployment rate can be inflated in cases where people leave the labor force in droves, reducing the number of “unemployed workers” without reducing joblessness. This is why it is also important to examine other employment measures to understand the dynamics and nuances of the region’s workforce.

Only 4 percent of the regional labor force was unemployed, but 8 percent of Black adults in the labor force and 7 percent of Native Americans in the labor force were unemployed. Unemployment for all groups peaked in 2010 after the Great Recession, during which it reached 7 percent for the regional labor force overall. In 2010, Native American and Black unemployment rates were much higher (14 percent and 12 percent, respectively). By 2019, unemployment rates had fallen to near the 2000 levels, but racial gaps persisted.

Women were far less likely to participate in the labor force and were most likely to face joblessness, especially Native American, Latinx, and Black women

Women were far less likely to participate in the labor force (75 percent) than men (88 percent) overall and across all racial/ethnic groups. The gender differences within the Latinx and API populations were particularly stark. Ninety percent of Latinx and API men were in the labor force, compared with 72 percent of Latinx and 75 percent of API women. The smallest difference in labor force participation rates between men and women was among Black and Native American adults (a 5 percent difference). A similar trend holds true for the employment-to-population ratio, with men across all racial groups having higher levels of participation.

Joblessness rates were similarly higher for women than men across all racial and ethnic groups. Joblessness rates for Latinx and API women were more than double (about 30 percent) that of their male counterparts (13 percent).

Unemployment rates tend to be higher among women than men for all racial/ethnic groups except for white workers. This difference by gender was largest among Native American workers. In 2000, 10 percent of Native American men were unemployed compared with 6 percent of Native American women, a difference of 4 percentage points. By 2010, the difference had grown to 10 percentage points, with 19 percent of Native American men facing unemployment compared to 9 percent of Native American women. However, in 2019, the trend reversed, as Native American women experienced the highest unemployment rate (9 percent) of all groups — nearly double the rate of Native American men (5 percent). Recently, Native American and Black women had the highest unemployment rates at 9 and 8 percent, respectively.

Employment measures for immigrants and US-born residents vary across race

Labor force participation rates for immigrants and US-born adults vary by race and ethnicity. Labor force participation rates among immigrants and US-born adults were similar for white and Latinx populations (about 80 percent), though slightly higher among those who are US-born. There was a larger difference in labor force participation rates among API populations. Eighty-seven percent of US-born API working-age adults were in the labor force, compared with 81 percent of API immigrants. Unlike other racial/ethnic groups, Black immigrants were slightly more likely to participate in the labor force (85 percent) than their US-born counterparts (81 percent). Black immigrants had the second highest rate of labor force participation after US-born API residents (87 percent). Looking at the employment-to-population ratio shows similar trends between immigrants and US-born adults for each racial and ethnic group.

Joblessness rates were much higher for Native American and US-born Black adults (one in three) than for other groups (one in five). Twenty-two percent of API immigrants faced joblessness compared to 16 percent of their US-born peers. Across all racial/ethnic groups for whom nativity is determined, U.S.-born workers experienced higher rates of unemployment. This difference was the largest for Black and Latinx workers.

San Francisco ranked highest among Bay Area counties for positive employment trends, while Solano County had the lowest ranking

Across the region’s cities and towns, labor force participation was higher in San Francisco and throughout the Peninsula into Silicon Valley. Similarly, San Francisco, the Peninsula, the South Bay, and the East Bay generally had lower joblessness rates compared to the outer portions of the region. Workers in the exterior parts of the region also experienced higher unemployment rates. For instance, on average, 8 percent of workers who live in Vallejo and Antioch were unemployed. As the urban centers of the Bay Area become increasingly unaffordable, residents are being forced to move further out and away from job and educational opportunities and transit access.

Strategies to Support an Equitable Recovery

While unemployment rates increased for all racial and ethnic groups during the Great Recession, it is important to note that disparities between groups existed before 2010. Black and Native American adults, for example, experienced an unemployment rate of about 8 percent in 2000 compared to about 4 percent unemployment experienced overall. The economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have only exacerbated these inequities, and these disparities have persisted throughout the recovery. 

During this period of recovery, equity must be at the forefront of policymaking. Several strategies exist for community organizations, policymakers, and others to ensure an equitable recovery for Black, Latinx, and Native American households. Covid-19 recovery investments, in particular, must intentionally address the deep-seated racial inequities that exist in the economy and labor market. Strategies include: 

Learn more about employment outcomes in your community, including additional strategies to address persistent inequities, by exploring the four employment measures on the Atlas.

*Jamila Henderson, a former Senior Associate at PolicyLink, contributed to this analysis during her tenure at the organization.