The story of the 2016 presidential election has been the revolt of the white working class, pinched by globalization and frustrated by social change. Those voters lifted Donald Trump to the GOP nomination and are central to his hopes of winning the White House on Tuesday. But in terms of public policy, they are arguably not the workers who stand to gain or lose the most from the election result.
The workers with the most on the line earn minimum wage, or close to it, and they often rely on government-paid or government-subsidized health plans. They are disproportionately black or Latino.
They have received only a fraction of the media attention that frustrated white workers have in this campaign, but they are at the center of many of the candidates' most important policy debates.
Democrat Hillary Clinton wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour and supports states raising it as high as $15 an hour. Trump has alternatively supported and opposed raising the federal minimum from $7.25 an hour, its current level. (His fellow Republicans in congressional leadership have opposed an increase in the minimum wage, which combined with his equivocal stance doesn't suggest a groundswell of support under a Trump administration.) Trump says he would repeal the Affordable Care Act, while Clinton would keep and expand it.
Both candidates would deliver modest tax breaks to low-paid workers as a whole, according to analyses of their plans by the independent Tax Foundation, although the group also calculates that Trump's plan could end up raising taxes on some low-income families, particularly single parents. Nonwhite low-wage workers would benefit disproportionately from the Clinton plan, which would raise taxes on the rich and lower them for the poor. Trump's plan would disproportionately benefit high-income white workers, because its largest percentage gains go to the top 1 percent of taxpayers.
All of those debates have implications for racial disparities. A majority of black workers and nearly three in five Latinos earn less than $15 an hour, according to the National Employment Law Project, compared to a little more than one in three white workers. That's both because nonwhite workers are less likely to have completed college than whites — college-educated workers earn more, on average, than less-educated workers — and also because black workers earn less than whites at every education level, a sign of discrimination in the job market.
Evidence, including a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests Obamacare has disproportionately benefited nonwhite workers, both in terms of reducing their uninsured rates and subsidizing their insurance purchases. This is directly related to income: African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately likely to hold jobs that don't offer employer-based health coverage, and/or pay low enough to qualify them for subsidized insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Any changes associated with either policy, then, will the ripple hardest through the nonwhite worker pool. If minimum wage increases boost worker incomes without displacing many jobs, as advocates predict, nonwhite service workers will reap a large share of the benefits; if the increases kill jobs, those workers will be the ones looking for work. Repealing Obamacare could leave many of them without health coverage.
“Anything to do with the minimum wage generally . . . is going to have a disproportionate impact for black workers,” said Alan Berube, a researcher at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, who has documented a post-recession shift from middle-class jobs to low-paying jobs among black workers in many of the nation's largest metro areas. Raising minimum wages, he said, could “potentially make up for some of this lost ground that we’re seeing.”
Sherleen Bright, a home-health-care worker from Richmond, works for $9 an hour and is eager for any law that might boost that pay. She's also worried about health care: She said she was turned down for health coverage for years because she is diabetic, before the Affordable Care Act banned that practice. Finally covered through Obamacare, she saw a doctor and was diagnosed — and treated — for breast cancer.
“I’m just hoping to be able to survive, and I’m hoping somebody can do something about the wages we earn, because I feel like I’m trapped,” Bright, a Clinton supporter, said in an interview. “If Trump was to repeal Obamacare, and we go back to health insurance the way it was, oh my God. I feel hopeless.”
Kim Thomas, a home-care worker from Raleigh, N.C., who also supports Clinton, earns between $9.50 and $11 an hour and works shifts up to 18 hours long. Raising the minimum wage, Thomas said, “would be absolutely phenomenal for someone like me. That would mean my income would go up, and I would have to work not as long hours.”
Nonwhite workers have, in line with historical trends, largely backed the Democratic nominee in this race. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, Clinton held a lead of 71 percent to 20 percent over Trump among nonwhite voters without a college degree, who are the ones most likely to work low-wage jobs.
Among non-college white voters, the results were nearly reversed: Trump led, 63 percent to 29 percent. That's nearly 10 percentage points larger of a lead than GOP nominee Mitt Romney had over President Obama in the 2012 election, according to exit polls. The size of that margin is the main reason Trump remains competitive in this race — and one that has focused media attention, relentlessly, on white workers' plight.
Low-wage, nonwhite workers are at a pivotal moment in the economy. The Great Recession exacerbated already widening racial income divides in America. Real wages fell between 2007 and 2015 for black workers at the low end of the earnings ladder and at the median, according to detailed work by Valerie Wilson at the Economic Policy Institute, while comparable wages for white workers have risen slightly.
An analysis by Berube of Brookings found that median earnings for black workers plunged in a quarter of the nation's largest metro areas from 2009 through 2014, and that their earnings have declined more overall than those of white workers. The reason, Berube finds, is that many black workers who lost middle-class jobs in the recession and early recovery appear to have been forced to accept low-wage jobs going forward; whites were much more likely to find other middle-income jobs.
In the past year, though, nonwhite workers have had rapid income growth — not enough to close the still-cavernous gap between their incomes and those of white workers, but still the strongest growth for them since the end of the 1990s. Policy decisions appear to be driving much of that growth, particularly for nonwhites.
Robert Shapiro, a Clinton administration economist who now runs the firm Sonecon, has found that income gains for black and Latino workers have outpaced gains for whites since 2013. He attributes those increases to several factors, including state and local efforts to raise the minimum wage and government subsidies to buy health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, which count as income in his analysis.
Perhaps the most important factor in recent income gains, though, is the current pace of job creation, which has brought down unemployment and is forcing employers to raise wages to attract workers, including at the bottom end of the scale. Maintaining, or boosting, that job-creation pace will be critical for low-wage workers under the next president — an effort that cuts across a lot of other policy disagreements in the campaign.
Hillary Clinton says the best way to help job growth is to give working families government help, including limiting how much they have to pay in child-care costs and requiring employers to offer them paid leave. Trump counters with a combination of tax cuts, which he says will speed economic growth, deregulation, increased energy drilling and, critically, a change in trade policy that he promises would create 1 million additional jobs in the first year alone.