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.
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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.
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.