The civil rights movement, from its mid-20th century growth and successes to its current manifestations, has had a dual focus of eliminating political and social discrimination and bettering the economic lot of Black Americans, as well as that of other people of color in the United States. From the beginning, leaders of the movement and their political allies recognized the intrinsic connection between these goals. They understood that equality under the law meant little without addressing the rampant poverty in Black communities across the country.

Our new research quantifies that direct connection, showing that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a signature measure of the civil rights era, narrowed the wage gap between Black and White men in the areas where it was most strictly enforced. Specifically, between 1950 and 1980, the gap between the median wages of Black and White workers in the South narrowed by approximately 30 percentage points. And our study, which builds on existing research on the economic benefits of voting rights legislation, shows that the Voting Rights Act was responsible for about one-fifth of that reduction.

This issue brief first details why the Voting Rights Act delivered greater political power to Black voters. We then show that this resulted in higher wages to Black workers and narrowed the Black-White wage gap. We examine some ways the Voting Rights Act could have had this wage effect, specifically developments in public- and private-sector employment and greater enforcement of measures barring discrimination in the workplace. We close with a brief look at how the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013 to dramatically weaken enforcement of voting rights may be starting to reverse the wage gains we document after the enactment of the Voting Right Act.

Read the full article about voting rights and economic equity by Abhay Aneja and Carlos Fernando Avenancio-León at Equitable Growth.