Researchers study impact of labor markets, residential segregation, racial attitudes on economic opportunities

Researchers from Emory, Georgia State University and Morehouse College have completed the first phase of a study that examines the impact of labor market dynamics, residential segregation and racial attitudes on economic opportunities in Atlanta.

Funded by grants from the Ford Foundation and Russell Sage Foundation, the Atlanta study is part of the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality under way in three other major urban areas -- Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles. In each city researchers are conducting: household surveys focusing on labor market experiences, residential location decisions and racial attitudes; telephone surveys of employers regarding their recruitment, hiring and promotion practices and firm location decisions; and a series of in-person interviews with employers to examine their hiring practices and experiences, racial and gender attitudes, and perceptions of the labor market.

"Our major findings on labor market issues will come from the combined analysis of the employer and household surveys," said Emory sociologist Irene Browne, one of the study's principal investigators. "We will look closely at the interrelationship between what different groups perceive as their opportunities and constraints and what types of resources are actually available to them. The most surprising finding so far is that we have not found big gaps in income between blacks and whites. It appears that gender is a much more important variable in considering income disparities," said Browne.

In preliminary results compiled from interviews with 1,455 Atlanta households, 828 African American and 627 white, researchers found:

* Racial Attitudes: Respon-dents, particularly African Americans, reported a fair amount of job discrimination in the Atlanta area. Approximately 42 percent reported that there was "a lot" of discrimination against African Americans in getting good jobs, 28 percent felt that there was discrimination against Hispan-ics, 16 percent against Asians, and only 4 percent against whites. Approximately 20 percent of the persons interviewed indicated that women faced "a lot" of discrimination in the job market. When asked whether whites treat other groups equally or tend to discriminate against members of other groups, more than one-fourth of the minorities rated whites with the highest level of discrimination.

* Segregation: Respondents identified several possible reasons for black and white families living in segregated areas in Atlanta. Approximately 19 percent said that it was because of economic reasons, only 2 percent reported that discrimination was the reason, and 4 percent indicated it was because of property values.

*Labor Market Issues: The employer surveys recently have been completed, and results have not yet been tabulated.

According to Browne, the increasing inequality between rich and poor in American cities has been attributed to several possible factors, including: the location of job opportunities; the mismatch between skills needed by employers and the available skills among the poor; racial discrimination; and residential segregation. "Lend-ing patterns, residential preferences and government policies all have contributed to housing segregation, which in turn limits labor market opportunities for the poor, particularly minorities," said Browne.

"This multi-city study is unique because we look at both the employer and employee sides of the labor market. We can determine whe-ther the skills and characteristics of po-tential employees fit employer needs, preferences and perceptions," said Browne. "We also can learn a lot by making comparisons between cities; for example, by comparing Atlanta to Los Angeles, we can assess the ways in which having multiple race/ ethnicity groups affects inequality as opposed to having two major race/ethnicity groups."

Study researchers say that Atlanta offers an excellent laboratory to study the interrelationship of economic, employment and racial factors on labor opportunities. For example, while Atlanta fits the national pattern of job creation in the suburbs and poverty in the inner city, its substantial levels of population and employment growth over the past few decades raise questions of whether the poor actually benefit from a labor market where there is low unemployment. Also, Atlanta differs from other sites in the study in that there is a substantial African-American middle class and less residential segregation than in the other cities. "We're interested in examining how these factors influence opportunities among minorities and the poor," said Browne, who thinks that the study may shed some light on two seemingly contradictory trends in Atlanta. During the 1980s as Atlanta's economy grew, blacks moved to the Atlanta metropolitan area from other parts of the country, and many middle class blacks settled in Atlanta's suburbs. Despite the expanding economy, Atlanta's poverty rate remained high, especially among the city's African-American population. In fact, there was actually an increase in income inequality among the city's residents. "There is a disparity between our assumptions and reality because of the types of jobs which have increased, the location of those jobs, and the kinds of skills required to fill those jobs. Low-income blacks in Atlanta are still relatively disadvantaged in their access to the labor market," said Browne.

Because Atlanta has a reputation for having good race relations compared to many other urban areas in the United States, researchers also are interested in comparing racial attitudes among Atlanta residents with those in other cities to see if this assumption is true, and whether racial attitudes influence job opportunities.

-- Nancy Seideman