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No, minority workers are not taking jobs away from white people

President-elect Donald Trump talks with workers during a visit to the Carrier factory in Indianapolis on Dec. 1. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

No, minority workers are not taking jobs away from white people.

Yet that's the conclusion some drew from a report recently released by the Economic Cycle Research Institute. After a New York Times columnist wrote about the report this week — highlighting the disparity in recent job gains by race — readers resolved that whites were “left out” of the nation's financial recovery and are victims of “economic disenfranchisement.”

But other economists say that the analysis tells an incomplete story of what the economic recovery has meant for demographic groups.

To start, the report asserts that of the more than 5 million jobs added since November 2007, the pre-recession employment peak, more than half went to Hispanics — a stunning proportion that accounts for four times their share of the labor force that year.

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Disproportionately large gains also occurred among black and Asian workers, according to the report. African Americans accounted for 25 percent of the job gains, more than double their share of the labor force. Asians accounted for nearly 30 percent of the gains, about six times their share of the labor force.

But white workers fell behind, the report said. Whites had fewer jobs than they did nine years ago — even though they made up more than 80 percent of the labor force in 2007.  

These statistics were enough to drive many, including the report’s author, to conclude that white economic despair led to Donald Trump’s election victory.   

“The shock of the election spoke to a kind of disconnect,” said Lakshman Achuthan, co-founder of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, in an interview with The Washington Post. “There is a huge cohort — you can call it whites, people in rural areas — who weren’t feeling the 5 percent unemployment rate. They weren’t feeling the stock market at new highs. They weren’t feeling a recovery that’s seven, eight years old.”

But other economists pounced on the report after the New York Times columnist, Eduardo Porter, highlighted it in his column. The statistics Porter cited paint too simplistic of a picture, they said.

A prayer vigil was held for the employees still at risk of losing their jobs when Carrier and Rexnord manufacturing plants are shut down. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

“The implication is there are hundreds of thousands of white people who lost their jobs to blacks, Asians and Hispanics. Yet if you look at the unemployment rate differentials by race, you don’t see a huge increase in the white unemployment rate,” said Jonathan Rothwell, a Gallup economist.

The recession and its aftermath were not dramatically worse for white workers, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for whites — 4.6 percent in 2015 — is lower than for all racial groups except Asians. In comparison, 9.6 percent of African Americans, 6.6 percent of Hispanics and 3.8 percent of Asians are unemployed.  

And a far higher share of whites are employed than blacks; 59.9 percent of whites 16 years old and over who are not in the military or institutionalized are employed, compared with 55.7 percent of blacks. The percentages of Hispanics and Asians who have jobs are just slightly higher than for whites — not nearly the alarming portrait painted by the Economic Cycle Research Institute.

All demographic groups experienced declining rates of employment between 2007 and 2015, but white workers’ plight is not as dramatic as the institute implies.

“I don’t see any evidence that whites were disproportionately harmed over the last nine years,” Rothwell said. “The main concern I have with the [Economic Cycle Research Institute] chart is it’s potentially grossly misleading in terms of how it could be interpreted.”

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Rothwell and other economists pointed out that as the country becomes more diverse because of immigration and higher birthrates among minority groups, it follows that those groups would make gains in employment along with population.  

“One would expect to see jobs shifting. Just as we see more kids going to public schools who are nonwhite, we would expect to see more adults in the labor force who are nonwhite, and it’s not any cause for concern,” Rothwell said.

Whites are also aging, and as baby boomers retire, the size of the white labor force remains relatively stagnant. The institute's analysis compares a demographic group’s share of the labor force at a single point in time with the group's share of job gains since 2007. In doing so, it overlooks the changes in the sizes of the underlying populations over time, said Alan Berube, deputy director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

Achuthan said his critics dismissed his finding by attributing white job losses to retirements. He rebutted that argument with a new chart Friday breaking down employment by age and race. The charts show that whites over 65 are more likely to be working now than in 2007. The decreases in employment actually occurred among younger whites.

“This is actually kind of heartbreaking,” Achuthan said. “This chart shows us that the whites who gained jobs during the recovery should have been retiring, but they are working to make ends meet because they have lost their shirts.”

Achuthan said his findings hold true: “Of the net new jobs since the recession, blacks, Hispanics and Asians got them all.”

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He acknowledged, though, that blacks and Hispanics may not necessarily be better off following the nation’s economic recovery, especially because they started out with higher unemployment rates than whites.   

“Blacks, Asians and Hispanics are getting a lot more of the net new jobs than their proportion of the population, but I’m not saying they are a lot happier,” Achuthan said.

He cautioned against jumping to the conclusion that minorities unfairly landed jobs at the expense of whites.

“It’s not like they all showed up at a job fair and someone said, ‘No, we’re taking the person of color,’” Achuthan said. “The easiest explanation is that Asians, black and Hispanics tend to be located in the population centers, and that’s where a lot of the job growth has been.”

Whites living in rural areas may be reluctant to move to the cities for jobs, he said.

“When you’re down and out, c’mon, are you going to pack your stuff into a U-Haul, drive to an urban center, rent a place and set up shop?”

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