Ben Carson's unchallenged notion that racial pay gaps are OK
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By all accounts it was, perhaps, the most bizarre and wrongheaded statement made during the fourth Republican debate. Yet it appeared to go unnoticed or dismissed by the Fox Business network moderators, the audience and the other presidential candidates standing beside retired neurosurgeon Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonYes, President Trump, we do have a homelessness crisis and you're making it harder for us to address New HUD rule would eliminate housing stability for thousands of students Carson defends transgender comments, hits media for 'mischaracterizations' MORE.


"Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases," answered Carson in response to moderator Neil Cavuto's first question about whether or not he'd raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. "It's particularly a problem in the black community. Only 19.8 percent of black teenagers have a job, who are looking for one. You know, that — and that's because of those high wages. If you lower those wages, that comes down."

"You know, I can remember, as a youngster — you know, my first job working in a laboratory as a lab assistant, and multiple other jobs," Carson added. "But I would not have gotten those jobs if someone had to pay me a large amount of money."

Carson's much-ignored, but bewildering debate response on the minimum wage comes at a time when recent polls show him with the most favorable hypothetical black support numbers if he were the Republican nominee. Yet the answer, almost completely based within the context of black unemployment and singling out African-American economic struggles, suggests a remarkably wide gulf between those realities and Carson's perception of them.

And it adds an interesting, often deliberately overlooked, aspect of the minimum wage debate. From historically decreased wages to perennially bad employment and career opportunities compared to white counterparts, it's no secret that the economic prospects of African-Americans have been substantially soiled by several hundred years of advanced-stage systemic racism.

The response from Carson may have marked an unusual and potentially troubling public turning point in that ongoing debate over whom and what is to blame for black economic troubles. Explanations in recent years, spurred by constant reflection over stubborn black unemployment, underemployment and low labor participation rates, have ranged from more conventional "the-Recession-did-it" narratives to teasing conservative chants that African-Americans suffered the most economically under — you guessed it — the first black president.

Yet, since the Department of Labor started tracking unemployment in 1972, and despite the fact that black unemployment has slightly improved since then according to official government estimates, it doesn't gloss over the fact that such rates have always found themselves double the rate of white peers.

"The African American unemployment rate is at or below its pre-recession level in eight states: Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Illinois, and Missouri," explained the Economic Policy Institute's Valerie Wilson in a recent analysis on black unemployment rates. "But this numerical recovery must be put in proper context because with the exception of Texas, each of these states also had black unemployment rates that were among the highest in the nation before the recession."

"The unemployment rate remains most elevated above its pre-recession level in Alabama — 5.6 percentage points higher. Before the recession, the African-American unemployment rate in Alabama was 5.3 percent — nearly half of what it is now."

Nor does Carson's answer or preferred Republican bootstrap pitches offer any solidly alternative sugarcoating of persistent wage gaps between blacks and whites. According to federal Bureau of Labor Statistic data, blacks and Latinos still make measurably much less in wages than whites and Asian-Americans.

Median weekly earnings for black men, in fact, are nearly 40 percent less than white men, at averages of $646 per week versus $896 per week, respectively. For black women, it's demonstrably worse, at $621 per week compared to $728 per week on average for white women. Latino men and women earn much less at $594 and $531, respectively. Asian-Americans fare much better at $1,019 and $792 per week, respectively, for men and women.

Factoring in the orthodox economic assumption that younger workers are expected to earn less due to presumably less experience, education and accumulated skill sets, it still doesn't explain why, traditionally, even younger whites make more than younger African-Americans.

"The correlation between age and earning power breaks down when you look at whites and blacks," noted Deborah Ashton, vice president and chief diversity officer at Novant Health, in the Harvard Business Review. "The white workforce is younger than the black workforce — 8.8% of their full time workforce is between 16-24 years of age compared with blacks at 8.0% — and yet whites earn considerably more."

"It's worth noting that the unemployment rate for black youth is 26.6%, almost double the unemployment rate of white youth at 13.5%," Ashton continued. "While age may play a role in the lower weekly median earnings for Hispanics, it does not explain the lower median wage for blacks."

Even with advanced degrees, black men and women earn wages that are significantly lower than their white peers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advanced degree-holding white men — those with master's or doctorates — earn on average nearly $1,500 per week compared to barely $1,200 per week for black men with advanced degrees and less than $1,000 per week for black women with advanced degrees. Interestingly enough, Hispanic men appear to slingshot ahead of black men in weekly earnings once they gain a bachelor's or advanced degree.

Statistically speaking, Carson probably made much less as that exuberant young lab assistant than his fellow white colleagues — and maybe slightly less as a neurosurgeon. (Is that one reason why he felt compelled to make more money on the public soapbox circuit?)

Hence, on its own merit, Carson's argument that increased wages are the culprit behind droopy black employment doesn't exactly explain why black wages still lag far behind white and Asian-American wages, even with advanced degrees, and even if other indicators are factored in such as age.

We can only speculate on the intentions of those who cut the paychecks. But we can definitely say something really fishy is going on here.

Which makes Carson's comments somewhat problematic ... and just plain off. If true, the point made during the debate could conceivably justify racial wage gaps and view lower paid African-Americans as a good thing.

Still, there is no empirical evidence showing a direct correlation between high black unemployment and high wages — or that lower black wages improve black job prospects. What is clear are data showing whites with either comparable or lower skill sets and education earning more than African-Americans.

Yet research suggests that increases in the minimum wage actually eliminate many stressors attributed to lower incomes and can dismantle barriers to finding new employment. Raising a wage for traditionally disadvantaged workers, note many researchers, can offer an opportunity to ease personal and financial challenges. "A theoretical case can be made that minimum wages might instead improve the relative employment prospects of disadvantaged workers," notes John Schmitt, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "A higher minimum wage could help disadvantaged workers to cover the costs of finding and keeping a job, including, for example, transportation, child-care, and uniforms."

Ellison is a veteran political strategist and contributing editor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent to The Philadelphia Tribune, a contributor to The Hill and the "Sunday Washington Insider" for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia. He can be reached @ellisonreport.