The inequality of opportunity has left a lasting mark on the United States and has had a disproportional impact on people of color. The path forward requires us to take a step back and reevaluate how we look at equal access to employment, education, entrepreneurship, health, wealth, and criminal justice. If we are to protect the United States’ social and economic fabric, we must work diligently to address these long-standing racial disparities.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched the Equality of Opportunity Initiative in 2020 to address opportunity gaps that perpetuate broader inequalities in our society and hold back individual and business success and economic growth. To drive meaningful, measurable impact through public policy and private sector solutions, we must listen, learn, and lead.
We compiled this research to show the magnitude of opportunity gaps in six key areas. The findings below have informed our work as we continue to pursue targeted, data-driven, and sustainable solutions that will help deliver the American promise of equal opportunity to all.
Differences in proficiency rates between white and Black students, dubbed the “achievement gap,” begins before formal schooling and persists through K-12 education and beyond. These educational gaps perpetuate inequalities in employment, income, and wealth creation.
While the high school graduation rate for the nation has risen to an all-time high of 86%, the graduation rate for Black students is almost 10% lower than that of white students.
Figure 1 shows the educational attainment of non-institutionalized adults over the age of 18. The educational attainment of white adults is reflective of the national average. Asian Americans obtain college degrees at twice the rate of Black Americans. Black Americans are less likely to have completed a high school or college diploma than their white and Asian counterparts.
For the vast majority of Americans, employment is a critical determinant of family income and plays a role in a family’s ability to build wealth across a generation. The importance of a job to a family and a community is evident.
Black unemployment rates have been consistently twice as high as white unemployment for the past four decades. In May 2021, the white unemployment rate was 5.1%, but 9.1% among Black Americans.
Figure 2 shows the percentage of each race that works in the indicated industry. The most densely populated industries in 2019 were Education and Health Services and Wholesale and Retail Trade. Black Americans are overrepresented in Transportation & Utilities, and Education & Health Services industries and underrepresented in Construction. Hispanic Americans are overrepresented in Construction and Wholesale & Retail Trade and underrepresented in Education & Health Services. Asian Americans are significantly overrepresented in Professional & Business Services.
Source: BLS Current Population Survey. Table 18: Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity (Numbers in thousands). 2019.
Source: BLS Current Population Survey. 2019.
There continues to be a strong pattern of racial disparities of employment concentrations across occupations. Black workers are, on average, more concentrated in occupations that pay less and are less likely to offer paid sick leave, health insurance, or retirement benefits. Black Americans make up roughly 12% of the workforce, but only 7.6% of the highest earners and 17% of the lowest earners.
Figure 4 shows the percentage of each race that works in the indicated occupation. The most common occupation amongst working Americans in the U.S. in 2019 is Professional & Related occupations, followed by Service occupations. Black Americans are overrepresented in Transport & Material Moving occupations and underrepresented in Management, Business, & Financial occupations. Asian Americans are overrepresented in Professional & Related occupations and underrepresented in Construction & Extraction occupations. Conversely, Hispanic Americans are overrepresented in Construction & Extraction occupations and underrepresented in Professional & Related occupations.
Source: BLS Current Population Survey. Table 11: Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2019.
Disparities in earnings along racial and gender lines are evident across similar occupations and education levels.
Source: BLS Current Population Survey. Table 11: Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2020. BLS Current Population Survey. Table 39. Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by detailed occupation and sex.
Figure 6 shows the total labor force divided into quintiles of highest to lowest median weekly earnings. In 2020, Black Americans were overrepresented in the lowest-earning quintile and underrepresented in the highest-earning quintile. Similarly, Hispanic Americans were underrepresented in the first and second highest-earning quintiles and overrepresented in the lowest-earning quintile. Conversely, white Americans and Asian Americans were overrepresented in the second highest-earning quintile and underrepresented in the lowest-earning quintile.
Source: BLS Current Population Survey. Table 11: Employed persons by detailed occupation, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2020. BLS Current Population Survey. Table 39: Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by detailed occupation and sex. *Only occupations for which earnings records were available were used.
Entrepreneurship can be a catalyst for economic mobility. It plays an influential role in building wealth in families, communities, and economies. According to one study, the median net worth of Black business owners is 12 times higher than Black nonbusiness owners.
Black Americans are less likely than their white counterparts to launch new businesses. When they do, Black-owned businesses, on average, have lower revenues, hire fewer employees, and are more vulnerable to economic shocks like COVID-19. The difference can be explained by a persistent gap in access to capital.
Black-owned non-employer businesses are half as likely to get financing as white-owned firms. Black American-owned businesses have required significantly more startup money out of the owners’ pockets than white-owned businesses. 76% of Black entrepreneurs rely on personal and family savings for financing.
In the United States, Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once they are arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; once convicted, they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences.
Figure 8 shows the percentage of arrests by race compared to the percent of population by race. In 2019, Black Americans accounted for a quarter of all arrests but only an eighth of the total population. Conversely, white Americans were proportionately less likely to be arrested when compared to overall population.
Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at 5.1 times the rate of white Americans.
It is also harder for Black Americans to bounce back economically after incarceration.
Race is associated with several healthcare access disparities. Minority patients have markedly worse health outcomes than white patients, with Black Americans having the most significant differences.
Figure 9 compares the U.S. projected life expectancy at birth by sex, race, Hispanic ethnicity. Black Americans’ life expectancy is three years less than the average American’s. Black Americans born in 2020 are projected to have a shorter life expectancy by roughly five years compared to white and Asian Americans and Individuals of Hispanic Ethnicity.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Table 17: Projected Life Expectancy at Birth by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 2015 to 2060. Release Date: December 2014.
Access to good healthcare insurance coverage helps people live longer, healthier lives.
Figure 10A illustrates 2019 insurance coverage and type by race. Insurance coverage is relatively even across races and Hispanic ethnicity; however, Black Americans and Hispanic Americans lack private health coverage by 11.7% and 17.3%, respectively. This difference is more than made up by public health insurance for Black Americans. Further, Hispanic Americans are twice as likely to be uninsured compared to the average American.
Figure 10B illustrates the market share of each type of private insurance. More than half of all individuals are covered by employment-based plans.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Table A2: Percentage of People by Type of Health Insurance Coverage for Selected Ages and Characteristics Using ACS Data: 2018 and 2019. *Totals across the average and races exceed 100% because it is possible for a person to be covered by both public and private insurance.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Table 1: Coverage Numbers and Rates by Type of Health Insurance: 2018 and 2019.
Figure 11 illustrates that Black Americans suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke at significantly higher rates in all age groups.
Figure 12 compares the number of deaths in 2015 suffered by white and Black Americans across various age groups. Black Americans were more likely to die from all causes than white Americans that year.
Source: CDC. Vital Signs - African American Health 2015.
19% of Black Americans live below the poverty level, compared to 7% of white Americans.
Figure 13 compares mean family income before tax, median family income before tax, and the number of families that were able to save by race. White families’ median income was $30,000 higher than Black families' median income. Compared to white Americans, Black Americans make $.79 on the dollar.
The median Black earner makes 21% less than the median white earner.
Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). 2019.
Historically, Black American families have held approximately one-tenth of the wealth of white American families.
Figure 14 displays the median and mean family net worth across races. Black families’ median and mean net worth was the lowest of all families in 2019. Specifically, the median net worth and average net worth of white families were eight times higher than that of Black families for that year.
Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). 2019.
Systemic inequalities in these six areas perpetuate broader inequalities in our society, hold back individual and business success, and hinder economic growth.
Driven by data and informed by conversations with business, government, academic, and civic leaders, we developed the Equality of Opportunity Agenda to advance private sector solutions and best practices, scale impactful programs, and drive policy action at the federal, state, and local level.
We also will continue to identify and advance other solutions to help close the equality of opportunity gaps.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made real progress in convening the business community to identify data-driven solutions to the inequalities that exist in society and is committed to continuing to put the collective muscle of American business behind advancing solutions that deliver equal opportunity to all.