The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The problem with Trump’s question to black voters, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump repeated his pitch to minority voters in Ohio on Aug. 22, asking them "What do you have to lose?" (Video: The Washington Post)

Donald Trump has a new strategy to win black voters, who are overwhelmingly rejecting him in polls. Black voters consistently support Democrats, but Trump argues that things couldn't get any worse for them if he were in the White House, so they might as well try supporting a Republican candidate.

"Look at how much African American communities are suffering from Democratic control. To those I say the following: What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? What do you have to lose?" he said on Friday. "You live in your poverty, your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?"

Trump's comments imply that he cannot imagine any greater misery for African Americans than the lives they live today. Many black voters, however, have themselves lived through worse.

To be sure, there are still large racial disparities in income, health, education, criminal justice and more. Yet the evidence suggests that the lives of African Americans have improved substantially over the past several decades.

At a rally in Fredericksburg, Va., on Saturday, Aug. 20, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made a special appeal to African American voters. (Video: Reuters)

White workers still make substantially more than black workers, for example. The typical white man earned $52,000 working full time year round in 2014, according to the Census. For black men, the figure was $41,000. White women also earned about $41,000 that year, while black women earned about $35,000 on average.

Yet incomes for black workers are increasing. Black men's average annual earnings were about $38,000 in 1973, while white men's earnings have declined since then. The divergence suggests that black men's wages increased despite trends in the broader economy that may have reduced men's wages in general, such as the decline of unions and increasing competition from a growing number of female workers.

Black women's wages increased from $27,000 in 1973, an increase of 25 percent over four decades. White women enjoyed similar gains.

While incomes fluctuate from year to year with the economy, changes in society and the law probably account for some of these differences. After the civil-rights movement, the gradual disappearance of legal and informal discrimination in employment and education provided many black workers new opportunities to make money.

The data on incomes do not reflect all of the ways that the lived experiences of African Americans have changed. Not only can black workers earn more, they also have more choices in where they live, send their children to school and go out to eat on weekends. Their neighbors who are not black are less likely to articulate overt prejudice, at least in surveys.

To account for these other shifts, economists have also studied broader data on Americans' well being. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the University of Michigan studied the results of a large national survey and found that African Americans usually describe themselves as happier than they did in the past.

Stevenson and Wolfers found that the improvement was greatest in the South, where African Americans now report being no less happy, on average, than their white neighbors.

This change all the more remarkable because four decades ago, the South was the region where the racial difference in reported happiness was greatest. Aggressive federal enforcement of civil-rights laws in that part of the country might have contributed to the shift for black Southerners.

The economists found that black women's outlook improved more than black men's. Indeed, young black men — those ages 18-29 — were actually less happy in recent years than earlier generations of young black men, in contrast to the trends for women and older men.

It could be that young black men still endure discrimination in employment, in criminal justice and in their daily interactions with Americans of other races that do not affect other African Americans to the same degree.

African Americans' happiness declined abruptly during the recent recession, suggesting that black households were more exposed to the crisis. As the economy recovers, the trend in happiness for this group should continue to improve.