“If you’re African American you’re doing horribly. You’re doing horribly,” Donald Trump said on MSNBC last week. “African American youth is doing worse than it’s ever done, essentially.” On “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” on Sunday, the Republican front-runner declared, “President Obama, an African American, has done a terrible job for African Americans.” He also said, “We have an African American president and the black youth, the African American youth has essentially all never done worse.”
The unsubtle slam here is that the nation’s first black president has done nothing for black people. Like most things the Big Apple billionaire says, this is a simple-minded criticism of what the president has actually done. Trump is like certain African American critics of Obama who bemoan what they say is his failure to pursue a definable “black agenda.” Mindful of the hair-trigger accusation of racial favoritism, Obama has pursued the presidential and politically necessary “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy. What it lacks in public relations pizzazz, it makes up for in real results.
But back to the issue at hand. No, as has been the case since before the founding of the republic, African Americans are not doing well vis-a-vis white Americans. Even in good times, black unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is higher than that of whites. And the economic implosion of 2008 dealt a body blow to all Americans. But the facts do not support The Donald’s hyperbole.
When the October jobs numbers were released in November, I crowed that African Americans are getting back to work. That’s because the black unemployment rate was at 9.2 percent. Not great, but down 7.5 percentage points from an all-time high during President Obama’s tenure of 16.7 percent in August 2011. But the December statistics show my celebration was premature. The numbers were even better.
While the national unemployment rate remained at 5 percent for the third month in a row, the black jobless statistics fell from 9.4 percent in November to 8.3 percent in December. That’s half of what it was in August 2011.
Now, get this: The all-time low for African American unemployment since 1975 was 7.6 percent in 2000. Last month’s black unemployment rate is just 0.7 percentage point higher.
Next, youth unemployment. As a May 2015 report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) on “The Class of 2015” helpfully notes, “The unemployment rate of young workers is typically slightly more than twice as high as the overall rate.” EPI defined young workers as “recent high school (age 17–20) and college graduates (age 21–24) who are not enrolled in further schooling.” I plugged this definition of “young workers” into the databases at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) website and zeroed in on specifically African Americans, ages 16 to 24. BLS youth data starts at age 16. The not-seasonally-adjusted data, while not ideal, do not support Trump’s claim.
The December 2015 unemployment rate for blacks in that age group with high school diplomas and not enrolled in college was 17.6 percent. That is down 21.8 percentage points from an all-time monthly high of 39.4 percent in August 2011. Not only was last December the lowest African American youth unemployment rate in 2015, but it is also the lowest since November 2007 (17.5 percent). For some historical perspective, November 2000 saw the lowest monthly black youth unemployment rate (13.5 percent) since 1985, the earliest year of BLS data available on the site.
The overall 2015 unemployment rate for this group was 22.4 percent. That is the lowest since 2008. That is down 8.8 percentage points from 31.2 percent the following year, the end of Obama’s first year in office. That is down 10.5 percentage points from an all-time high of 32.9 percent in 2011. That is down 3 percentage points over last year. The best years were 1999 and 2000, when the unemployment rate each year was 18.6 percent.
To see all this historical data for yourself, click this link, then change the “Start Year” to 1985.
The area with undeniable trouble is labor force participation. For black youth, the rate has been declining since its 45 percent high in September 1998. And it hits its lowest level during the Obama presidency at 22.6 percent. But things appear to be rebounding. When the president took office in January 2009, the labor force participation rate was 29.6 percent. Last month, it was 29.5 percent. The highest level was 29.7 percent in November 2014.
Overall, the labor force participation rate for African Americans ages “16 years and over” has been declining since the high of 66.4 percent in September 1999. And it has been especially bumpy during the Obama years. When he came into office, 63.2 percent of blacks were in the labor force. By last month, 61.5 percent. That’s up from the low of 60.2 percent in December 2013. This decline matches the trend for all U.S. workers.
The Great Recession of 2008 knocked Americans, African Americans in particular, off their stride. And they have been scratching their way back ever since. Who’s to say things wouldn’t be better if Republicans had not ignored the president’s American Jobs Act in 2011 or any of his other efforts to get Americans back to work? But as the thicket of data presented above shows, despite the obstacles, African Americans are getting back to work.
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