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January 5, 1998

NSF grant will support study of economic inequality between black and white women

Lori Kletzer

By Jennifer McNulty

Economist Lori Kletzer has received a prestigious career advancement award from the National Science Foundation to explore the disparity in the economic status of black and white women. Kletzer, an assistant professor of economics at UCSC, will conduct an in-depth examination of the roles of family background and schooling in the educational attainment and occupational achievement of black and white women.

"The economic status of black women is far more precarious than the economic status of white women," said Kletzer. "White women typically achieve higher levels of education and go on to jobs that pay higher salaries than those held by black women. I want to look at the factors that determine these outcomes."

Education is the critical variable for both women and men in future earnings, said Kletzer, and family background appears to play a large role in educational outcomes. "Whether a child's parents went to college or not seems to be an important influence on her educational attainment," said Kletzer. "The occupations and income levels of parents are important, too. Children are strongly influenced by the environment they grow up in, and the environment includes the characteristics and resources of secondary schools."

Some of the areas Kletzer will examine in her study of black and white women are:

Kletzer will use detailed longitudinal data collected by the federal government to glean insights into the factors that have influenced black and white women. "These data sets have followed women from the age of 14 into their 40s," said Kletzer. "They offer highly detailed information about the family backgrounds of individuals and will allow me to follow women over time. Education is sequential, so I'll be able to see how decisions made in high school impact college, and how decisions in college impact occupational choice."

Research since the 1960s on the earnings differential between blacks and whites suggests that affirmative action, antidiscrimination laws, and the civil rights movement helped narrow the wage gap between black and white women from about 30 percent in 1960 to near parity by the late 1970s.

"But there's been backsliding in the 1980s and 1990s," said Kletzer, who attributes the losses to recessions in the early years of both decades, decreased enforcement of civil rights laws, and the erosion of affirmative action.

Contributing to the wage gap is the disparity between the earnings of college graduates and high school graduates, a gap that has increased greatly since 1979 and is now 70 percent, said Kletzer. "It's a huge pay gap caused largely by changes in technology--mostly computers--that have vastly increased the demand for college-level skills," she said.

Although studies show that going to college pays off for both blacks and whites, college-going is less prevalent among blacks than whites: Among young adults, about 13 percent of blacks have completed college, compared to about 25 percent of whites. This difference is due to both lower rates of starting college among blacks and lower rates of college completion. Kletzer's study will include both factors.

"We don't know exactly what's holding blacks back," said Kletzer. "It's at least partly the cost of college, which has gone up a lot in the last decade while family incomes haven't risen much. I want to explore the changing roles of family background and secondary school."

Kletzer has received a one-year grant for $49,500 to explore these and related questions. The grant is intended to give recipients a brief opportunity to expand their research agenda and generate preliminary findings that may be used to apply for a three-year NSF grant that would support a more extensive project.

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