Race, Local Government and Representation

The Racial and Ethnic Composition of Local Government Employees in Large Metro Areas, 1960-2010

Todd Gardner
Topic: Demographics

Since lifting the immigration quota system in 1965, the population of the United States has become increasingly diverse, particularly with the growth of populations of Asian and Hispanic origin. This study uses census microdata from 1960 to 2010 to look at how the racial and ethnic composition of local government employees has reflected the diversity of the general population in the 100 largest metro areas over the last half century.

Historically, one route to upward social mobility has been employment in local government. As the general population has changed, the demographic composition of the local government workforce has changed as well. The Civil Rights Act of 1964-which banned discrimination in employment on the basis race, color, religion, sex, and national origin-also affected the composition of the workforce. This study uses data that predates the immigration and civil rights legislation mentioned above through to the present, including microdata from 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000, as well as American Community Survey (ACS) data from 2006 to 2010.

For this study, local government employees have been divided into high- and low-wage occupations using an earnings score based on the median earned income for each occupational title in 1990. (See the technical note.) The population is divided into four groups: non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics, and other races. The proportion of the population from each racial/ethnic group employed in local government is then divided by the proportion of that group in the working-age population. A value above 1.0 means that group is overrepresented in the occupational group, and a value below 1.0 means that group is underrepresented. A group that is proportionally represented will have a value of 1.0.

The figure shows that those employed in high-wage local government jobs have consistently been disproportionately white over the past 50 years. Where the general population in the 100 largest metro areas was 84.9 percent white in 1960, 92.7 percent of people working in high-wage occupations were white. The most recent ACS data shows that while the general population of the 100 largest metro areas was only 57.8 percent white, high-wage local government employment remained at over two-thirds (69.7 percent) white. Still, high-wage employment has become more diverse over this period as the population has changed. African Americans comprised 10.7 percent of the population of the 100 largest metro areas in 1960, but only 5.2 percent of high-wage local government employees.

The passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s signaled a change in the presence of African Americans in these jobs, however, and by 2008 blacks had become proportionately represented in high-wage government jobs in large metro areas except in Midwestern metros such as Madison and St. Louis. Hispanics and other races continue to be underrepresented in high-wage government jobs. In 2008, Hispanics made up 19.4 percent of the population of the 100 largest metro areas but only 10.6 percent of high-wage local government employees. Other races make up 9.0 percent of the general population but only 6.1 percent of local government employees.

Looking at low-wage local government jobs shows an interesting variation on this theme. Blacks have long been disproportionately represented in low-wage local government employment. The degree of disproportion has been slowly declining since 1970 but is still quite high. Hispanics were underrepresented in low-wage local government employment before 1980, but in recent years have become proportionally represented in the 100 largest metro areas. Looking more closely at regional differences, however, reveals that Hispanics were underrepresented in local government employment overall, regardless of earnings, except in some Western metros like Los Angeles and Phoenix.

The chart also shows population and employment ratios for the historical urban cores (cities classified as "central cities" by 1960) of the 100 largest metro areas. These figures demonstrate the greater diversity of urban core areas. The high-wage jobs figure also shows that the disproportionate representation of whites has been especially pronounced in large cities, though this gap has narrowed somewhat in recent years. Where the percentage of whites in central cities fell from 76.3 percent in 1960 to 41.0 percent in 2008, the percentage of high-wage local government employees who are white went from 90.4 to 55.9 percent.

High-wage employees in the South were less diverse and more disproportionately white in 1960 prior to the passage of civil rights legislation. By the turn of the century, however, the diversity among high-wage employees in the South was comparable to the rest of the United States. In recent years, in metro areas in the West, with larger and more rapidly growing Hispanic and Asian populations, high-wage local government employment has had comparatively greater difficulty in mirroring the diversity of the population.

Using microdata from historical censuses and the American Community Survey provides a sweeping source for examining the growing diversity of the American population over the past half-century, and how that diversity has been reflected in the composition of the workforce employed by local governments. These data indicate that local workforces have grown more diverse over time, though representation across different racial and ethnic groups and geographic areas is uneven.

African Americans were underrepresented in high-wage local government employment and overrepresented in low-wage jobs in the early years of this study, particularly in the South, but have since become proportionally represented in high-wage jobs on a national level. In contrast, the most recent data indicate that Hispanic and other races are underrepresented in this employment group, particularly in the Midwest. Though the numbers of Hispanic and Asian high-wage local government employees are increasing, it appears that it will take several years for those groups to achieve proportional representation throughout the United States.

While high-wage local government employment has become more diverse over time and has generally paralleled the increasing diversity of the population, keeping up with the rapid pace of diversification has been a longstanding challenge for local government employment.

Technical note: This study uses the ERSCOR90 variable described on the IPUMS website, harmonized and unharmonized decennial census microdata, and microdata from the American Community Survey, which are not available to the public except through approved projects carried out in secure Research Data Center facilities administered by the U.S. Census Bureau. Because of changes in census questions over time, the definition of some characteristics, such as Hispanic ethnicity, varies somewhat from census to census but these characteristics are still basically comparable over time. More detailed documentation forthcoming in a CES Working Paper.

Disclaimer: This work is released to inform interested parties of ongoing research and to encourage discussion of work in progress. Any views or opinions expressed in the paper are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the U.S. Census Bureau. Please direct correspondence to Todd Gardner, U.S. Census Bureau, Center for Economic Studies, 4600 Silver Hill Rd., Washington, DC 20233, or via email at


Todd K Gardner Historian and Statistician, U.S. Census Bureau



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