Update: Earlier this month, President Trump implied on Twitter that it was his not-then-a-year-old policies that had led to a sharp drop in unemployment for black and Hispanic Americans. The article below articulates why that’s not deserved.
On Saturday evening, CNN aired an interview with rapper Jay-Z, in which he dismissed Trump’s claims about helping the black community economically. This prompted a response from Trump in which the president explicitly took credit for the unemployment drop.
It’s still hard to make the case that’s deserved. The original article follows.
To hear Donald Trump tell it during the campaign, African Americans were suffering from a catastrophic employment situation, with more than half of young black people out of work. “What the hell do you have to lose?” he asked black voters — usually in front of the mostly-white audiences at his campaign rallies.
On Monday morning, now-President Trump announced that the situation had been fixed. After all of those years of voting for Democrats, finally black unemployment had hit a new low. Never forget!
As The Post’s Glenn Kessler described it on Twitter, this is a misleading description of what’s happened — and a cynical one.
It is true that the unemployment rate among blacks is the lowest its been on record. (That record begins back in 1972.) In December, it hit 6.9 percent, dipping below the prior low of 7 percent that was reached in April 2000.
It’s worth noting, of course, that April 2000, that prior low, came after the economic boom of the 1990s — a boom during which the president was Bill Clinton, one of those Democrats who “did nothing” for black Americans.
It’s also worth noting that Clinton had been in office for more than seven years at that point, meaning that if one wants to attribute economic gains to the work of a president, Clinton could justifiably claim that credit.
Trump, on the other hand, has been president for less than one year. In December, we noted that Trump likes to take credit for trends that began well before he took office. That holds true here, as well. On the chart below, see if you can answer the question by clicking on the right dot.
African American unemployment peaked after the recession in 2010 and slid downward (though not consistently) ever since. When Obama started his second term in office, black unemployment was 13.7 percent. When he left, it was 7.8 percent, a drop of 5.9 points. (As of November, Americans still generally gave Obama credit for the economy.) Since, it’s fallen another 0.9 points.
That’s not the story Trump told on the campaign trail, though. Then, as we noted above, he tried to claim that the situation for black Americans, particularly young black Americans, was dire. How’d he justify that, given the decrease above? By creating his own metric of unemployment, focusing on young people because he included students in his totals of those not working. So yes, unemployment among black teenagers was high — because many of them were for some reason going to high school instead of punching a clock. It was a nonsense claim meant to make the situation look bad — but now that he’s president Trump embraces a metric under which Barack Obama’s presidency looks pretty strong.
That’s the cynicism inherent in the tweet: Trump misrepresented the facts to voters in 2016 and now wants credit for a trend he inherited. Oh, and while implying that the trend never happened under the Democrats, which it did — twice.
Black unemployment isn’t exactly good, mind you. It’s better than it has been, but compare that figure to the unemployment rate for whites.
In nearly 9 out of 10 months since 1954, white unemployment has been lower than the all-time low in black unemployment set last month.
White unemployment has always been lower than black unemployment. In fact, black unemployment has always been at least 66 percent higher than white unemployment; in December it was 80 percent higher.
There is a longer-term problem with Trump’s tweet, too. Like many things in the economy, unemployment numbers tend to be cyclical, rising and falling, rising and falling. At some point, the black unemployment rate will likely stop falling — and start rising. It’s hard to say when that will happen, but unemployment rates are near historic lows across the board.
If those rates start to head back up, the likelihood that black unemployment climbs past that 7.8 percent figure seen in January 2017 seems high. (In 95 percent of months since 1972, black unemployment has been above that figure.)
Should that happen, Trump’s question to black voters will have a new answer. What did they have to lose? Among other things, a downward unemployment trend.