What Trump Leaves Out When He Talks About the Black Unemployment Rate

President Donald Trump has a lot to say about the economy. His tweets on it are as incessant as they are unreliable: There’s his insistence that we have the “best jobs numbers” in the history of the country (job creation has slowed since Obama’s presidency ended), the time he bragged that we have the “hottest jobs market on planet Earth,” and his confusing claim that he has revitalized the steel industry and spurred the development of six new steel mills (he has not).

None of those claims are exactly true, but the one that happened during his State of the Union address this year is what keeps me up at night. While making the case for his economic platform, Trump specifically touted low black unemployment, saying, “[It’s] something I’m very proud of, African American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded.” Republicans cheered; Democrats grimaced. I rolled my eyes.

The average black unemployment rate since November 2017 is 6.5 percent — indeed the lowest it has been since the United States started recording unemployment for black workers back in 1972. But that does not mean all black Americans are in full economic health, as the president’s proclamation would suggest. More to the point, it is debatable whether Trump should get any credit for such low unemployment metrics or whether they are just a continuation of the Obama administration’s efforts.

First of all, black unemployment is still nearly double white employment nationwide. (In 14 states and the District of Columbia, black unemployment rates are more than double white rates, and in South Carolina black unemployment is triple white rates.) If white unemployment levels were anywhere near this high, it would be considered a national crisis.

There were only 11 times in the past 50 years when the white unemployment rate has been higher than today’s black unemployment rate — and five of those were during the worst recession since the Great Depression. As a reminder, the government responded to that recession with a $831 billion stimulus to boost the economy and lower unemployment. Yet, Trump is praising the same unemployment rate for blacks today without a similar economic response.

What’s worse, the jobs that black workers and white workers get do not pay the same: Black workers earn less money and build less wealth than white workers.

Trump’s rosy economic picture is dangerously misleading for black workers in America.

The typical full-time black worker still earns about $12,000 less annually than a white worker. Gender pay gaps also compound this inequity. On average in 2017, black women earn 66 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. That has a serious impact on peoples’ lives: Roughly 20 percent of black and Hispanic people live in poverty compared to less than 9 percent of white people. This is, in part, because black workers are more likely to be trapped in low-wage work, and the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for nearly a decade. A yearly income at this rate is just over $15,000.

Structural racism contributes to pull black men, in particular, into low-wage work, especially for those with a criminal record. Black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of white men. With an estimated 87 percent of employers conducting criminal background checks, formerly incarcerated individuals are more likely to remain unemployed one year after their release and formerly incarcerated men are paid 40 percent less annually than non-incarcerated men.

In addition to wages, wealth disparities along racial lines are even more disturbing. Wealth, which is often held in the form of a person’s homes, savings, and investments, is a cushion that helps families pay for education or keep themselves afloat during periods of unemployment. In 2016, the median wealth of white Americans was $142,180 compared to $13,460 for black Americans.

This directly impacts black Americans’ social mobility. Racial gaps are identifiable with respect to college completion, homeownership, and criminalization. Black Americans hold college degrees at only 62 percent the rate of whites. Among black households, one-third fewer are homeowners compared to white households. Even when black Americans do become homeowners, if the neighborhood they reside is more than 50 percent black, their homes are valued at nearly half the price of similar homes in communities with no black residents. And, with a prison population of 487,300, black Americans account for one-third of America’s federal and state prison inmates, which is more than twice their share of the U.S. population.

Trump’s rosy economic picture is dangerously misleading for black workers in America. The unemployment rate may be lower for black Americans than in the past, but it is still high compared with white rates — and a web of discrimination, criminalization, and low wages is still holding people back. Glossing over those truths to focus on the statistic that suits the president’s talking points doesn’t make the reality of things any better. Black people should not be used as a convenient political prop — especially without meaningful investment in our communities to better our full economic outcomes.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of employment statistics for formerly incarcerated individuals.



Louisiana Teachers Are Fighting Tax Breaks for Exxon. And They Might Win.

Oil usually reigns supreme in Louisiana. Since 2008, industry titan Exxon Mobil alone has received $381 million in tax subsidies at the state and local level, second only to those it received in Texas, the oil capital of the U.S. and home to Exxon’s headquarters.

It seemed like a foregone conclusion, then, when a slew of new breaks Exxon requested under the Pelican State’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, known as ITEP, came up for approval in East Baton Rouge in October.

East Baton Rouge’s public-school teachers, however, had other ideas. They may emerge victorious in a fight against one of America’s largest companies in one of the most-industry friendly states in the country.

Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the U.S., with an education system ranked near the bottom as well. It’s also one of the most prolific granters of corporate tax incentives – which generally lower tax payments for companies if they move operations, build new facilities, or invest a certain amount of money in a particular location – trailing only New York in the total amount it hands out. Per capita, Louisiana grants the most corporate tax incentives in the country by far.

Louisiana law, like that in many states, says that the legislature must pass a balanced budget, meaning every cent that gets spent on corporate tax incentives or other giveaways to big businesses is a cent that can’t wind up going toward the other things for which the government is responsible, including education. According to a recent report from Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks corporate tax subsidies, school districts in the U.S. lost a collective $1.8 billion due to corporate tax abatements last year.

Citing the connection between budget struggles in their district and the giveaways local officials kept approving, East Baton Rouge’s teachers formally voted to stage a one-day walkout in October if the tax breaks for Exxon were approved. 2018 saw teacher walkouts across the country that brought attention to low pay, shrinking budgets, and other ills of the public education system; Baton Rouge added the effects of corporate giveaways on public schools to that list.

“You don’t have enough money to give us a raise, we’re below pay in terms of across the nation, and now you’re going to cut the budget, but you want plants and industry such as Exxon to get tax money?” said Angela Reams-Brown, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, when asked why the district’s teachers turned their ire on these tax breaks.

She added that teachers and support staff in her district haven’t received a pay increase in 10 years – which means that once inflation is factored in, teachers there have seen a pay cut of $8,500 since 2008 –  and that they are losing instructors to other cities and states that pay better. Plus, she said, special education classes in East Baton Rouge are rationing paper to get through the year.

“We’re taking on Exxon now, but our fight is with any industry who wants a tax exemption from education. Public education can’t afford to pay the taxes of big industries such as Exxon and Shell and others in the state of Louisiana,” she said.

The threatened walkout garnered enough attention to convince the Louisiana state Board of Commerce and Industry, which oversees ITEP, to push back an initial vote on approving the breaks to last week. Alas, the state board formally gave Exxon approval for $6.6 million in tax breaks over five years (after Exxon pulled some of its applications on its own).

But that’s not the end of the fight: Thanks to a change in procedure initiated by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2016, local government bodies, including school boards, also need to approve the portion of the tax exemptions that directly affects them. The East Baton Rouge school board will get that chance in the next few months.

East Baton Rouge’s teachers and local activists are confident that they can head the giveaways off at the pass. Reams-Brown confirmed that the walkout threat from the teachers still stands if the school board OKs the new tax breaks and said the teachers union will flood the meeting at which the vote will occur. “We plan to be there in full force,” she said.

Exxon has received tax cuts worth some $700 million in East Baton Rouge in the last 20 years, while cutting 1,900 jobs.

“It’s going to be a high-noon moment where we see what the priorities of those officials are,” said Broderick Bagert, lead organizer of Together Baton Rouge, which is also opposed to the tax breaks Exxon requested. “We’re feeling like the level of awareness and understanding now is totally different from anything that’s happened in the past.”

The local business lobby, of course, is decrying the campaign to stop the tax breaks as “pressure from groups using this process to advance their own political agenda.”

It makes sense that schools would be one of the government entities most susceptible to losing money due to corporate tax breaks, since many of those breaks are on property taxes, which are also America’s primary way of funding public education for some reason. The Good Jobs First estimate of $1.8 billion is almost certainly an undercount: Though school districts are supposed to report how much they lose each year due to tax breaks, many don’t.

Of the places that have reported how much money their schools lose, Louisiana is once again near the top of the list, trailing only New York and South Carolina, according to Good Jobs First. Three of the five most affected school districts in the country are located within the state. East Baton Rouge alone lost $17.5 million in the last fiscal year, more than it would cost the district to implement universal pre-K.

Adding some insult to injury, the tax breaks Exxon wants are for plants that are already built; the money isn’t even an incentive anymore, since the work is done, merely a pay out that the company is asking for because it can.

Loads of research has shown that corporate tax incentives don’t actually do what their advocates claim; they simply give big corporations money for shuffling jobs around the country or making investments they would have made anyway. These incentives lead cities and states into a race to the bottom, allowing corporations like Amazon to ignite bidding wars that only benefit shareholders’ bottom lines. According to The Advocate, an East Baton Rouge newspaper, Exxon has received tax cuts worth some $700 million there in the last 20 years, while cutting 1,900 jobs.

East Baton Rouge’s teachers are rightfully saying “enough,” and may even do what loads of other activists have been unable to: Stop a corporate giveaway in its tracks.



30 Million Homes Are Unsafe to Live In. This Arizona Organization Has a Model for Fixing Them.

When technician Dustin Shaber arrived at a small home on the east side of Tucson, he was prepared to measure a broken glass door and order a replacement. The homeowner had called in the request to Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, and Shaber had been dispatched to complete what sounded like a quick job.

But when he arrived, he noticed dark staining on the home’s mortar and a thick layer of algae growing along the exterior wall — something highly unusual for a home in the Arizona desert.

Concerned, Shaber asked the homeowner if she had a leak. “I mostly do plumbing,” he told her, “and what I’m seeing on the wall is symptomatic of a pretty major water leak.” While at first hesitant to talk about it, the homeowner eventually divulged that there was a problem.

She led Shaber through her home, which was covered in two inches of standing water. A broken bathroom faucet ran constantly into a clogged sink, which overflowed onto the floor. As a result, her possessions were moldy and unusable, and she was months behind on her water bills. The pipes were so backed up that the toilet had long stopped working. Overwhelmed and living alone, the homeowner couldn’t figure out who to call about such an enormous issue, which she feared she couldn’t afford to fix.

What began as a simple home repair illuminated a dire situation for a low-income homeowner.

According to a 2016 report by the Center for American Progress, 30 million U.S. housing units “have significant physical or health hazards, such as dilapidated structures, poor heating, damaged plumbing, gas leaks, or lead.” By some estimates, poor housing conditions such as these result in health care costs in the billions of dollars.

Such conditions are exactly the kind of overlooked problems that CHRPA’s crew of technicians are trained to solve. In 1982, the Tucson Mennonite church began a small home repair project. Thirty-five years later, that project is now CHRPA, which services upwards of 1,500 low-income households each year across the more than 9,000 miles of Pima County, which has a poverty rate of 18.4 percent.

Many clients are elderly, have disabilities, or are single parents with young children; many live on fixed incomes. After paying for groceries, transportation, medical or dental care, and household goods, there’s little money left for home repair, however critical the problem may be. About 10 percent of homeowners spend more than half their income on housing.

“We prioritize issues of health and safety,” said CHRPA executive director Scott Coverdale. “If we learn of an elderly person who might be medically frail and they don’t have cooling, we go as soon as we have a crew available … Or someone living on $745 a month social security and they pay $350 to the mobile home park, so they literally don’t have the money to fix their cooler or hire a plumber.”

Coverdale and his team of technicians — many of whom are volunteers — conduct emergency repairs ranging from fixing rusted-out pipes and broken water lines to patching up leaky roofs and electrical problems. They also make disability modifications, building wheelchair ramps, widening doorways, and installing shower seats and grab bars. Technicians regularly meet homeowners with disabilities who, previous to modifications, haven’t been able to leave the house or enter the bathroom. Nationally, of households that spend over half their income on rent, between 35 and 40 percent contain someone with a disability.

Technicians often meet people who have been living without cooling for years, some of them in metal-sided trailers in the middle of the desert — a situation particularly dangerous for the medically vulnerable, and one that can lead to hospitalization. CAP reports that “having a working air-conditioner reduces the risk of death from extreme heat by 80 percent,” but “one in five low-income households do not have air conditioners, and many cannot afford the electricity to run them … Low-income households typically spend 14 percent of their total income on energy costs compared with 3.5 percent for other households.”

Coverdale said, “A condition that can be resolved with a $23 cooler pump and an hour of volunteer time ends up costing the community tens of thousands of dollars and the suffering of an individual.” Over the past 10 years, extreme weather events have cost the United States more than $240 billion per year, which includes related health care costs from the burning of fossil fuels.

We want to know about the person in a trailer in the desert with no cooling or no water.
– Scott Coverdale

Before moving to Tucson, Coverdale spent years in Africa and Central America working in advocacy and community development. When he moved to Tucson 18 years ago, he worked construction. While he enjoyed the work, he said “I got a little tired of tearing out a beautiful kitchen and putting in an even more beautiful kitchen.” So he began working with CHRPA. “We’re not just technicians,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is respond to the human need, not just the technical need.”

The organization has forged partnerships with various organizations and agencies across the county. In the case of the homeowner with the standing water in her home, Shaber worked with caseworkers to advocate for a new, safe residence. In other cases, hospitals will refer patients without cooling or water, or the fire department will alert them to a housebound homeowner in need of a wheelchair ramp. CHRPA currently partners with Tucson Water to replace older toilets with newer low-flush toilets to conserve water.

“If someone is isolated or vulnerable, we absolutely want the referral,” said Coverdale. “Even if we have too much work to do already. We want to know about the person in a trailer in the desert with no cooling or no water. It’s really hard to find that person.”

CHRPA receives its funding in a variety of ways, including individual donations and grants from foundations. It also receives material donations — such as work trucks — and funding from utility companies. Unclaimed utility deposits are put into a fund that CHRPA can use for certain home repairs, such as cooler replacements. Tucson Water supplies them with plumbing hardware, including pipes and kitchen faucets. And the organization receives funds from city and county community development block grants and from HUD.

In October, CHRPA volunteer Don L. wrote about responding to a request from a woman named Reglinda, who was suddenly living alone after her husband passed away. During her husband’s long illness, home repairs had not been kept up, and there were several doors that no longer locked or closed. “I don’t feel safe being here alone,” Reglinda told the CHRPA staff. “I love my little house, but I can barely sleep at night because it doesn’t close up anymore.” Volunteers Ted and Don spent two days replacing weather stripping, installing a front door threshold, fixing door jambs, and replacing doors.

“It is one job of hundreds, one house of the myriad homes we visit, one client of the multitude,” wrote Don. “But for Ted and I and Reglinda, there is a transaction of good will that went beyond the $527 of doors and hardware.”



Trump’s Immigration Policy Is Part of a Long U.S. History of Ripping Families Apart

Four months after the Trump administration announced the end of its family separation policy, four-year-old Brayan, from El Salvador, was torn from his father’s arms by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer after they crossed the border and requested asylum. When he described that moment, his father Julio broke down in tears. “I failed him,” Julio lamented. “Everything I had done to be a good father was destroyed in an instant.”

Despite public statements to the contrary, there is mounting evidence that the administration is continuing to separate asylum-seeking families like Brayan and Julio’s. President Donald Trump holds fast to the belief that family separation effectively deters families from Mexico and Central America from seeking refuge in the United States, despite evidence to the contrary, and immigration attorneys are reporting that the administration is taking advantage of a loophole in the federal court’s injunction against separations. According to Neha Desai at the National Center for Youth Law, border patrol officers are using the pretext that children’s safety is at risk to separate families: “If the authorities have even the most specious evidence that a parent was a gang member… anything they can come up with to say that the separation is for the health and welfare of the child, then they’ll separate them.”

The Trump administration’s decision to systematically separate children from their parents, is, in its specifics, unprecedented. But family separation was enabled in the first place, and it continues today, because our immigration system, like other public systems, has been built to separate families — particularly families of color.

The immigration system is one of three systems that routinely separate families in the United States. The criminal justice and child welfare systems are the other two. In the immigration and criminal justice systems, separation is most commonly an unconsidered, if not quite unintended, consequence of policy, as parents are incarcerated and sometimes deported without their children. In child welfare, separation is the deliberate result of policy, as children are removed from their parents’ custody over concerns for their immediate safety. In each system, however, children are harmed by family separation. And in each system, children of color are more likely to be separated from their parents.

The very first federal restriction on immigration resulted in family separations. In 1875, Congress barred Chinese involuntary laborers and suspected prostitutes from entering the United States. In practice, the law made it almost impossible for Chinese women to immigrate, including those who wished to join their husbands, as government officials “demonstrated a consistent unwillingness, or inability, to recognize women who were not prostitutes among all but the wealthy applicants for immigration.” In the years that followed, an increasing number of laws excluded more Asians from the United States. Separations continued as part of this: At Angel Island, the notorious immigration station in San Francisco Bay, many Asian-American families were separated for weeks at a time so that they could not coordinate their answers before they faced interrogation.

By the mid-20th century, Latinx immigrants had become the subject of nativist ire, and many Latinx families were separated as a result. During the Great Depression, local and state governments colluded with social welfare agencies to encourage and sometimes coerce Mexicans—and in many cases Mexican Americans — to “repatriate” to Mexico. Two decades later, concern about rising undocumented immigration in the Southwest led to “Operation Wetback,” a federal deportation drive that was once again focused almost exclusively on Mexicans. The legacy of this targeting of Latinx communities by immigration enforcement is visible today. Though immigrants from Latin America make up an estimated 77 percent of the unauthorized population in the United States, they have constituted well over 90 percent of immigrants removed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in recent years. 27,080 immigrants with U.S. born children were deported in 2017.

Like immigration enforcement, our system of mass incarceration mechanically separates families. Incarceration creates financial and emotional hardship for families by default, but there are additional ripple effects that can last long after release. According to an analysis of 3 million child welfare cases, parents who have a child placed in foster care because they are incarcerated are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than those who physically or sexually assaulted their kids. Again, this falls disproportionately on children of color: Approximately 11.4 percent of African-American children have a parent in prison, compared to 3.5 percent of Hispanic children and 1.8 percent of white children. This disparate impact has been true for the history of the criminal justice system in the United States, and it has grown with the rise of mass incarceration since the 1970s.

The child welfare system focused on removing poor children from their families, whether or not there were signs of abuse

Families of color are also disproportionately separated by the child welfare system, which from the beginning saw its role as removing children from their families for their own protection. Originally, the child welfare system focused on removing poor children from their families, whether or not there were signs of abuse. As William Pryor Letchworth, a famous advocate of children’s causes, declared in 1874, “If you want to break up pauperism, you must transplant [the child].” Charities in New York, Boston, and other East Coast cities sent thousands of poor children on “orphan trains” to towns in the Midwest, where they were assigned foster families.

As the child welfare system developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, children of color were for the most part excluded from services, but other public institutions separated them from their families at high rates. A Children’s Bureau report observed that from 1750 to 1960, “the black child’s chance of ‘receiving care’ [a polite euphemism for being incarcerated] from a correctional facility was still much greater than that of receiving any other type of care.” Meanwhile, the United States undertook a concerted campaign to remove American-Indian children from their families in order to facilitate their “assimilation.” Starting in 1879 and continuing well through the 20th century, children as young as five years old were packed off to boarding schools, where they were prohibited from speaking their native languages and, often, from visiting home.

When the formal child welfare system began to integrate following World War II, it continued to identify symptoms of poverty as grounds for removing children, and separated American-Indian and African-American families at startlingly high rates. Starting in 1959, the Indian Adoption Project, part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) larger effort to undermine tribal sovereignty and erase American Indian cultures, purposefully placed American Indians in white homes. Surveys in 1969 and 1974 documented that between 25 and 35 percent of all American-Indian children were placed in foster or adoptive homes or institutions. During this period, child welfare scholars also began to document the high rates of removal of African-American children, a legacy that lives on despite attempts to address racial inequities. A 2014 study found that 4.9 percent of white children will experience foster care placement before their 18th birthday, compared to 15.4 percent of Native American children and 11 percent of black children.

This history reveals that Julio and Barayan are not alone, even under less openly racist administrations. Thousands of families are separated every year by public systems, and families of color are much more likely to suffer this fate. In order to ensure that families like Julio and Barayan can remain together, we need to transform these systems. In the criminal justice and immigration systems, this means severely limiting incarceration and deportation, particularly of parents. In the child welfare system, this means increasing the services and supports available to families so that they can thrive together, as well as significantly raising the threshold to remove children from their homes. Children need their families in order to develop and flourish. As a nation, we cannot continue to tear children from their parent’s arms.



How a Tax Break Meant for Low-Income Communities Became a Mini Tax Haven for the Rich

The Trump tax bill, signed into law last year, established the Opportunity Zone incentive program. It’s meant to spur growth in low-income neighborhoods by giving investors tax benefits for putting money into distressed areas and leaving it there for a few years.

The goal of boosting development in low-income areas is certainly laudable, but one major concern is that funds are going to be directed to places that are not really distressed: Take, for instance,  the area where Amazon’s HQ2 will land in Long Island City, the area around a Trump golf course, or the future home of the Las Vegas Raiders NFL franchise, all of which qualify for benefits. Ahead of a White House event on Wednesday about Opportunity Zones, reports emerged regarding how the Kushner family business stands to take advantage of the program, after Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump pushed for its creation.

But high-profile, flashy examples of obvious Opportunity Zone boondoggles don’t highlight the full extent of the problem. For example, look at Rockville, Maryland.

The Rockville census tract below, outlined in dark green, fits within the definition of economically distressed for the Opportunity Zone program. For a census tract to be eligible, it must either have a poverty rate above 20 percent or median family income below 80 percent of the area median income.

A map of Census tract #24031700904, RockVille Maryland
Figure 1. Census tract #24031700904

While the Rockville tract has a poverty rate of 13 percent, well below the threshold, it is at 71.58 percent of area median family income. However, that is a reflection of the fact that Rockville is a suburb of Washington, D.C. that is well-off, with an overall median income of $100,436 in 2017, and that the median income of the tract in question is relatively smaller than that in the overall Rockville area.

It’s not that this census tract is distressed; it’s that it is relatively less well-off in a sea of wealth.

This census tract lies along a major highway, the Rockville Pike, which runs between the dark green and light green sections on the map. It is home to many strip malls. It is bordered to the west by the Woodmont Country Club, where the initiation fee is $80,000, and is also the location of new construction, especially around the Twinbrook Metro station, part of the D.C. subway system.

That’s not exactly the picture of a place that is going to have trouble attracting investment on its own. The Washington, D.C. region has the highest median income of any metropolitan area in the country, and while it certainly has pockets of deep poverty, this isn’t one where investment incentives are desperately needed.

Due to the Opportunity Zone program, tracts like this that are already experiencing growth will get big benefits and investors will be able to accrue significant tax savings for plopping their money there, while not achieving the core aim of the program. Investors will reap benefits for investments they might have made anyway, when the program is meant to entice them into areas they wouldn’t otherwise be. And there’s an opportunity cost at work: Funding that will come to this tract could have gone to other Opportunity Zones in places that are actually in need of capital.

Just looking at how the program is being touted in the investment community shows how far away from the mission it is in practice. In outlining the top 10 Opportunity Zones, Fundrise — an online real estate investing service — uses home value increases as the metric for investment. It is therefore not surprising that the top four are all located in large urban metropolitan neighborhoods in California.

Other fund managers are looking for an internal rate of return of 12 percent, but do not have similar metrics pertaining to the individuals within those communities. To fit within the mission of the program, funds should be tracking metrics like the number of startups created by individuals in the community, number of living jobs created, or the number of affordable housing units created.

If the goal is to revitalize low-income communities, the best way is to develop the already existing resources, namely the people who live there. If policy drives investment in individuals in these communities through the development of small businesses, it can spur further investment and uplift distressed communities. Instead, we’re stuck with a program that creates mini tax havens for the wealthy, while leaving low-income communities behind.