The Voting Rights Act increased racial economic equality which is now diminishing

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As many state legislatures consider weakening voter protections and Congress debates new suffrage laws, recent research from the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego reveals that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped improve the economic status of blacks. Conversely, after the Supreme Court rendered the Voting Rights Act ineffective in 2013, it resulted in economic deprivation for Black families that continues to persist.

“This research reveals that the weakening of the political power of minorities caused by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision has made the government less responsive to the political demands of minorities,” said Carlos Fernando Avenancio-León, assistant professor of finance at the Rady School of Management.

Avenancio-León is co-author of two papers that together measure the effect the Voting Rights Act (VRA) had on social and economic equality after the passage of federal legislation in 1965 and up to that a key provision of the law be struck down by the Supreme Court. The Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County vs. Holder. The research is the first to assess the direct impact of VRA on economic inequality.

The first study, a working paper, finds that counties where voting rights were more strongly protected experienced larger reductions in the black-white wage gap between 1950 and 1980. The second paper, published in the journal American Economic Association Papers and Proceedings, presents evidence that counties previously covered by the VRA began to see a decrease in public sector wages for black workers relative to wages for white workers, particularly for new hires, as early as five years after the court ruling Supreme of 2013.

“The VRA reduced economic inequality between blacks and whites in two ways. First, it contributed to the expansion of public employment opportunities,” Avenancio-León said. “And, second, it has contributed to and complemented the enforcement of labor market policies such as affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws.”

Carlos Fernando Avenancio-Leon

Carlos Fernando Avenancio-Leon

The two papers by Avenancio-León and her co-author Abhay Aneja of UC Berkeley focus on section five, which is at the heart of VRA. It allowed the federal government to monitor changes in practices or procedures in counties with a history of racial discrimination. These counties had to prove that a proposed change did not deny or restrict the right to vote because of race, color, or membership in a minority language group. This key provision was struck down after the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County vs. Holder. Chief Justice John Roberts cited the reasoning of the court’s opinion that “things have changed drastically” in the South.

Avenancio-León says her research finds that the VRA was able to economically empower black families — reducing the wage gap by a statistically significant 5.5 percentage points — because it changed politicians’ political preferences.

He and Aneja’s findings are based on wage comparisons between blacks and whites in counties where the VRA was enforced before and after the legislation was passed. Their pay gap analysis after Section Five of the VRA was rendered ineffective compares trends in the pay gap between blacks and whites in pairs of counties that share a border, where a county was previously covered by section five and the other no.

Their research also measures voter turnout. The authors find that Section Five increased voter turnout from 1968 to 1980 by 6.5 to 11.5 percentage points per election, with a jurisdiction’s turnout increasing by 2% for every 10% increase in its share of the population that was black.

The authors conclude that understanding the effects of VRA on political representation and economic progress is critical as policymakers debate the merits of suffrage.

As of January 14, 2022, lawmakers in at least 27 states have introduced, pre-introduced, or passed more than 250 bills containing restrictive provisions, compared to 75 such bills in 24 states as of January 14, 2021. During of the 2021 legislative sessions, more than 440 bills containing provisions restricting voting access have been introduced in 49 states.

These enacted and proposed laws include restrictions on mail-in voting, restrictions on early voting, and broader authority for voter list purges.

“We hope the evidence from our research will be informative for lawmakers,” Avenancio-León and Aneja said. “At a time of growing income inequality, it is worth considering the role of political powerlessness among minorities.”

The articles by Avenancio-León and Aneja, “The Effect of Political Power on Labor Market Inequality: Evidence from the 1965 Voting Rights Act” and “Disenfranchisement and Economic Inequality: Downstream Effects of Shelby County v. Holder” can be consulted respectively on this link and this link.


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