Was Unemployment Insurance Designed to Exclude Black Workers?


Kathryn A. Edwards, Economist

The question of whether or not unemployment insurance excludes Black workers isn't if it's the case, but why it's the case. And here the debate becomes, was it intentional or was it incidental?

When debating the 1935 legislation, it was made perfectly clear to lawmakers that by excluding domestic workers and agricultural workers and having the unemployment insurance program be state-administered, it was from the outset going to be less likely to be enjoyed by the majority of Black workers. There are lots of historical reasons why this was, of course, an incidental inclusion. It was pretty hard to enroll agricultural workers into an unemployment insurance system. Many European countries who had unemployment programs at the time, they didn't include agricultural workers either. And of course, it was a lot more likely to pass through a Supreme Court challenge if it was a state-administered program as opposed to a federally-administered program.

Those are all really good reasons that it could be incidentally the case that Black workers have been excluded from benefits or incidentally the case that Black workers would be less likely to receive them. However, in 1935, prominent Black researchers and prominent Black politicians told Congress exactly what was going to happen. If you designed the program in this way, Black workers would be less likely to get it. If you have this program be state-administered, Black workers would be less likely to receive them in the states in which they live, which was predominantly the South, but was true in anywhere they went. So long as there was discretion and room to maneuver, that would be a hole just big enough for most Black workers to fall through.

Learn More