Education, Race, and Jobs in the COVID-19 Crisis

As COVID-19 shakes the economy, the treacherous road to the American Dream increasingly leads to a steep cliffside drop-off for America’s most vulnerable.

By Anthony P. Carnevale and Artem Gulish

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the US economy. By the end of April 2020, the official unemployment rate had hit 14.7 percent, the highest rate in the history of modern unemployment statistics going back to 1948. More than 40 million unemployment claims have been filed so far, and there is strong reason to believe that even that high number understates the full impact of the pandemic, with many states still working through backlogs of unemployment claims.

As harrowing as these overall numbers are, they mask an even bigger tragedy. The burden of this economic downturn has been spread extremely unevenly. The most vulnerable groups in our society — those without a college degree, the young, those living in low-income households, those who have historically faced prejudice and discrimination, and parents who have to worry about the well-being of their children in addition to themselves — have borne the brunt of this crisis.

Even before the pandemic, adults without postsecondary education faced an economy with few good options, as long-term structural changes have limited opportunities for workers without a college degree. During the Great Recession of 2007–09, workers without postsecondary education were the hardest hit and the slowest to recover. Blue-collar jobs in areas such as manufacturing and construction, once the bedrock of the high school-educated workforce, have been in decline for decades. The retail industry, which historically offered jobs without many specialized skill requirements, was facing a bleak future even before COVID-19 forced the closure of nonessential stores. And leisure and hospitality, in some ways the last major bastion of good jobs for those without postsecondary education willing to work hard, has been the industry hardest hit by COVID-19, with a loss of 7.7 million jobs (a 47% decline) in April alone. Many workers without a college degree were also unable to work from home, a critical option that protected many college-educated workers from job losses.

The US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey for the week of May 14 through May 19 offers a glimpse of how devastating the pandemic has been for those without a bachelor’s degree, with more than half of workers in this category suffering a loss of employment income in their household, compared to 38 percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Adults without bachelor’s degrees were more likely to experience loss of employment income as a result of the pandemic than college graduates.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 14–May 19, 2020.

Young adults are another vulnerable group that has been hit hard by the crisis. Among young adults (those 18 to 24 years of age), 58 percent have experienced a loss of employment income since mid-March, a higher share than any other age group (Figure 2). Young adults are often hit harder than other age groups during economic downturns. And after suffering a “lost decade” punctuated by two recessions in the beginning of this century, millennials now face an even bigger crisis. Many millennials are still reeling financially from the Great Recession, with 16 percent unable to scrape together $400 for an emergency, a share that rises to 25 percent for millennials without a bachelor’s degree and 32 percent for Black millennials. With the current crisis still looming large, millennials have been dubbed “The Unluckiest Generation in US History,” with the first 15 years of their careers distinguished by unprecedentedly slow economic growth. And the prospects don’t seem much better for their younger Generation Z peers, who may end up acquiring the moniker of the “lockdown generation.”

Figure 2. Young adults (ages 18 to 24) are most likely to have experienced loss of employment income from the COVID-19 economic downturn.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 14–May 19, 2020.

Race and ethnicity also affect the extent to which households are negatively impacted. Latino and Black adults are most likely to have suffered a loss of employment income in their households, with 60 percent and 56 percent reporting such a loss, respectively, compared to 44 percent of White adults (figure 3). Black and Latino workers have already faced unequal access to good jobs for decades as they have fought to overcome discrimination and historic prejudice, and the current crisis will likely exacerbate those inequalities.

Figure 3. Latino and Black households were more likely to experience loss of employment income than White and Asian households.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 14–May 19, 2020.

Individuals with low household income are arguably the most vulnerable to the immediate effects of loss of employment. Analysis by household income paints a very concerning picture: more than half of those with pre-tax household incomes below $50,000 in 2019 have experienced a loss of employment income since March, compared to 31 percent of those with household incomes of $200,000 and above (Figure 4). In other words, those who could least afford to lose income have been most likely to do so.

Figure 4. Households with lower incomes before the pandemic were more likely to suffer loss of employment income than those with higher incomes.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 14–May 19, 2020.

Parents have faced an additional set of challenges in this crisis. With schools and childcare facilities closed across the country, the full responsibility of educating and caring for children has fallen squarely on parents, with limited help from family members outside of the household as communities used social distancing to limit the spread of the virus. As a result, some parents who escaped being laid off or furloughed had to voluntarily give up their jobs to take care of their children. Thus, 55 percent of households with children experienced loss of employment income, a higher share than households without children (Figure 5). Parents could ill afford to lose this income as they have to worry about feeding and housing their children in addition to themselves.

Figure 5. Households with children were more likely to face loss of employment income than households without children.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, May 14–May 19, 2020.

As the economy begins to reopen in many states and some raise prospects of a quick recovery, policymakers should not lose sight of the incredible economic devastation suffered by the most vulnerable people in our society. Those who have been most affected by the COVID-19 downturn will need substantial help to make it through the current crisis, along with suitable education and training to prepare them for good jobs in high-demand careers once the recovery takes off in earnest.

Dr. Carnevale is the director and research professor and Artem Gulish is the senior policy strategist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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