Sizing Up Affirmative Action

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Sizing Up Affirmative Action


"Assessing Affirmative Action" by Harry Holzer and David Neumark, in Journal of Economic Literature (Sept. 2000), American Economic Assn., 2014 Broadway, Ste. 305, Nashville, Tenn. 37203, and "What Does Affirmative Action Do?" by the same authors, in Industrial and Labor Relations Review (Jan. 2000), Cornell Univ., Ithaca, N.Y. 14853-3901.

Does affirmative action in business and education, along with government "set-asides" for minority firms, result, as many critics suggest, in poorer-performing employees, students, and contract firms? In an overview of past research, and a new study of their own, Holzer and Neumark, economists at Michigan State University, answer no on most counts.

Looking at more than 3,200 employers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles surveyed between 1992 and 1994, Holzer and Neumark found that 56 percent used affirmative action in recruiting. These firms attracted (not surprisingly) more minority and female job candidates, screened them more intensively, were more likely to ignore educational or past employment deficiencies or criminal records when they hired--and were more likely to provide training for their new hires. These actions by employers apparently paid off: Subsequent performance ratings showed that the minority and female workers did, if anything, better than white men.

Some 42 percent of the employers surveyed used affirmative action in hiring (as well as, for the most part, in recruiting). Holzer and Neumark found that these firms were more likely to hire women or minorities with lesser qualifications--but also to give them remedial training, thus erasing the differences. Overall, affirmative action, while boosting employers' costs, did not appear to result in weaker job performance.

Various studies have attempted to determine whether the proverbial "playing field" is level for minorities and women in the labor market. Summarizing these studies in the Journal of Economic Literature, Holzer and Neumark write that "while differences in educational attainment and cognitive skills account for large fractions of racial differences in wages, employer discrimination continues to play a role. …

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