The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s outdated spin on the black unemployment rate

President Trump often takes credit for a decline in the unemployment rate for African Americans. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

“Somebody please inform Jay-Z that because of my policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!”

— President Trump, in a tweet, Jan. 28, 2018

“African American unemployment has reached its lowest rate ever recorded — ever! Ever! Remember ‘What do you have to lose?’ What do you have to lose, right? ‘What do you have to lose?’ I said.”

— Trump, at a campaign rally in Southaven, Miss., Oct. 2, 2018

“You look at our economy. You look at jobs. You look at African American — the lowest in the history of our country, unemployment numbers — the best numbers they’ve ever had.”

— Trump, in a Fox News interview with Maria Bartiromo, March 22, 2019

In tweets and interviews, speeches and campaign rallies, Trump often takes credit for a decline in the unemployment rate for African Americans. It’s a well-worn talking point that appears dozens of times in our database of Trump’s false or misleading statements.

Regardless of whether the black unemployment rate goes up or down in a given month, the president celebrates it as the “lowest in history” or lowest on record.

That was accurate in May 2018, when the rate declined to 5.9 percent, its lowest level since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began to report it in 1972. Fast-forward to February 2019, and the unemployment rate for African Americans had jumped back to 7 percent, erasing all the gains it had made over the previous year.

Yet Trump continues to talk about it as the lowest rate in history. What gives?

The Facts

The black unemployment rate tends to be significantly higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate. At 7 percent in February, it was nearly twice the U.S. jobless rate of 3.8 percent.

It’s important to keep in mind that this official statistic for black unemployment — which Trump keeps talking about as “the lowest in the history of our country” — is less than 50 years old, dating to 1972.

A different data set from the Labor Department that goes back to 1947 shows that the annual unemployment rate for “negro and other races” went as low as 4.5 percent in 1953 — far below the 6.5 percent yearly average for black unemployment in 2018.

The two data sets (before and after 1972) are not apples-to-apples, but several experts told us that it’s still useful to compare them. “This isn’t the same measure but is the best that exists and even then ‘negro and other races’ is higher than whites,” said Omari H. Swinton, chair of the economics department at Howard University.

So it seems as if Trump’s claim to a historical record is sketchy at best. He was president when the BLS’s current statistic for tracking black unemployment reached a record low of 5.9 percent in May 2018. But an older set of government data suggests black unemployment went much lower in the 1950s.

In any case, this is a monthly record set nearly a year ago, in May 2018. The same statistic has been rising over the past few months.

And the unemployment rate for African Americans tells a limited story by itself. What kinds of jobs are these? Are they pushing up median incomes?

“We should never celebrate the fact that black folks are just working,” said Andre M. Perry, an expert at the Brookings Institution. “It’s like saying: ‘Look, you have a job. Why should you complain?’ And I think that’s what Trump is signaling. He’s saying to the black community, ‘Look what I’ve given you,’ and not necessarily saying, ‘Let’s look at the percentage of people in poverty, let’s look at the percentage of people rising to the middle class.’”

“Are black folks getting the kinds of jobs that are propelling them to the middle class? No, they are not,” Perry added. “You still see that gap in the unemployment rate, and you still see that gap in median income.”

The pattern of declines Trump is talking about began under President Barack Obama at the end of the Great Recession. The black unemployment rate peaked at 16.8 percent in March 2010 and has been on a steady downward path through the Obama and Trump administrations.

The White House did not respond to our questions. But Trump’s advisers address the black employment situation as part of a 700-page report issued March 19.

The report from the Council of Economic Advisers notes that “there has historically been a wide gap in employment rates between black and white prime-age adults” and that “it currently appears to be driven primarily by the employment disparity for males across the two races, rather than females.”

The CEA report offers possible explanations, collected from several academic studies, such as “differences in education or skills,” “labor market discrimination,” the “first fired, last hired” phenomenon, and “the lasting effects of higher incarceration rates among black males.”

It also notes: “Although there is further progress to be made in closing the racial and ethnic employment gaps, it is apparent that the economic growth during the current business cycle is having the largest positive effect on the employment of blacks and Hispanics. The average difference of 4.6 percentage points between the prime-age employment rates of blacks and whites in 2018 and of 3.5 percent between Hispanics and whites are each the smallest annual gaps ever recorded since the BLS began publishing prime-age employment-to-population ratios by race in 1994.” (Notice how this passage focuses on prime-age employment, rather than the overall working-age population.)

The White House report also takes a silver-lining approach to the 2018 unemployment rate for African Americans.

“The 2018 yearly average unemployment rate of 6.5 percent for African Americans was the lowest rate recorded in a series that began in 1972,” it notes. That’s accurate. But if you use a different BLS metric that goes back to 1954 (measuring “black, negro and other” unemployment), the yearly average unemployment rate for blacks was lower in 1969, at 6.4 percent.

And if you look at February 2018 to February 2019, the black unemployment rate actually rose — from 6.8 percent to 7 percent.

“Although this still is historically one of the lowest black unemployment numbers that we have, it still shows the persistent inequality that blacks face despite gains in educational attainment,” Swinton said.

The Economic Policy Institute called this recent trend “troubling” and noted that “the rise in black unemployment did not happen at a time when white unemployment also increased sharply.”

“Given relatively small sample sizes and data volatility, I try to not to make a huge deal about any month-to-month trend. So, when the black unemployment rate started rising in December 2018, there was a good chance it was a blip. That so-called blip has happened for three months in a row,” EPI senior economist Elise Gould wrote March 8.

She added: “We cannot definitively say this is a trend that is going to continue, but it is certainly an indicator to watch in coming months. That’s especially true given widening wage gaps between black and white workers in recent years.”

The Pinocchio Test

Trump was president in May 2018, when the African American unemployment rate reached 5.9 percent. That was the lowest on record since 1972, when BLS began calculating this statistic with its current methodology.

But history did not begin in 1972, so it’s a stretch to call these monthly figures the lowest ever seen in the United States. A slightly different data set shows black unemployment was lower in 1969, and another report shows it was lower in the 1950s.

Moreover, the president keeps touting his record on black unemployment even though the pattern of declines began under Obama, and even as the black jobless rate has begun to climb in recent months.

The overall picture Trump gives — reinforced through constant repetition — is skewed and outdated. It’s worth Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles

Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Three Pinocchios
“You look at our economy. You look at jobs. You look at African American — the lowest in the history of our country, unemployment numbers — the best numbers they’ve ever had.”
in a Fox News interview
Friday, March 22, 2019