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Study Finds Affirmative Action Lagging in Construction Industry

A Dartmouth professor has studied the effectiveness of affirmative action programs that are designed to improve the position of women and minorities in public construction. The study found that little has changed over the past 25 years.

David Blanchflower
David Blanchflower

David Blanchflower, the Bruce V. Rauner Professor of Economics, and Jon Wainwright, vice president of the consulting firm National Economic Research Associates, found that affirmative action programs in construction have not helped minorities become self-employed or raised wages over the 25-year period from 1979 to 2004. They reported their findings in a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper.

Blanchflower, who is also an NBER Research Associate, says, "There is considerable evidence of discrimination against firms owned by women and minorities in the construction sector; it is for this reason that Congress and many city and state governments have enacted race- and gender-conscious affirmative action programs. Despite the fact that there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that such programs do work, they have not been allowed to do so. They have been challenged in the courts and have been removed entirely in many instances or severely weakened." 

Using data from the Current Population Survey and the Census covering the time period from 1979 to 2004, the researchers found no evidence that significant improvements were made for minorities, especially for firms owned by Hispanics and African Americans. For women, however, the position seems to have improved, but the authors show that some of this is likely due to women acting as "fronts" for their white male spouses or sons.

Federal efforts to promote minority-owned business began in the late 1950s. States and cities have also launched initiatives that advance minorities and women in business. The study cites several legal cases, most notably the City of Richmond vs. J.A. Croson Co., where in 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Richmond, Virginia's race-conscious contracting efforts on the grounds of discrimination. The researchers explain that the Croson case set a precedent that made it difficult to maintain affirmative action programs nationwide. Where programs did survive, they were frequently turned into small business programs that were race blind and without a race- or gender-conscious component.

"We've seen a number of recent court decisions," says Blanchflower, "that have found such race-blind programs are constitutional, but overall we think that discrimination against minorities persists in construction. The recent move to race-neutral programs is unlikely to fix the problem that firms owned by minorities are underrepresented in construction."

By SUSAN KNAPP

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Last Updated: 12/17/08