A Cure for Discrimination? Affirmative Action and the Case of California's Proposition 209
An important claim made for affirmative action programs has been that they need not be permanent: they can be discontinued, the argument runs, once they have transformed employers’ attitudes. Proposition 209, enacted in California in 1996 and made effective the following year, represents a natural experiment testing that claim. It ended long-standing state affirmative action programs not only in education, but also in public employment and government contracting. The author uses Current Population Survey data to gauge the labor market effects of this policy change. The key finding is that employment among women and minorities dropped sharply, almost wholly because of a decline in labor force participation rather than an increase in unemployment. This finding suggests that affirmative action programs in California either had been inefficient--that is, resulted in sub-optimal employment outcomes--or had been effective while in place but had failed to create lasting change in employers’ prejudicial attitudes.