By now, President Trump has said it so many times that fact-checkers have rebuttals at the ready before he's finished his sentence.
“Our economy is probably as good as it’s ever been, or better. Unemployment numbers are historic,” Trump said in February. “You’ve been seeing black unemployment, African American unemployment — lowest levels in the history of our country.”
But, well, not really. By February, black unemployment was back to 7 percent from a low of 6 percent in September.
This argument nonetheless remains a cornerstone of Trump’s political pitch to black Americans — along with the prison overhaul legislation he signed and his support from Kanye West — in part because his administration has otherwise been heavily focused on delivering for his mostly white base. In recent months, it’s worth noting, that argument about how the economy is delivering for black Americans has gotten noticeably wobblier, a fact reinforced by new jobs data released Friday morning.
To the extent that presidents deserve credit for shifts in employment, there has been consistent good news for Trump to tout. While overall employment for men and women continues to grow at about the same pace since Trump’s inauguration as it had during the equivalent period before his taking office, white and Hispanic Americans have been added to the workforce at a faster pace.
But notice that solid blue-green line indicating black employment. From a seasonally adjusted peak in October, there are now some 200,000 fewer black adults working. You can see the downturn in recent months.
Again, there’s good news elsewhere. There are more white Americans than Hispanic Americans, for example, so as a percentage of the workforce, the growth in employment among Hispanic Americans really stands out. But from November 2014 to January 2017, the number of employed black Americans rose 8.1 percent. From January 2017 to March, the increase was 3.4 percent — thanks to the recent decline.
The black unemployment rate is historically volatile, but the picture there is similar. Since that low in September, the unemployment rate has bounced back up. From February to March, the rate dropped by 0.3 points, but the unemployment rate now is back to where it was a year ago. It’s still low relative to prior years, but one might be worried that it’s heading in the wrong direction.
Trump has taken to celebrating the historic number of Americans working, an odd metric, given that the figure is tied to population growth. By that metric, though, the number of black American adults who are working is far from being historic.
If there’s good political news here for Trump, it’s twofold. First, it’s not clear whether the recent reversal has staying power. Recent months could also be a blip that soon smooths out.
The other good news is that Trump’s approval rating among black Americans hasn’t really changed much since he took office. Meaning, in other words, that it’s not as though there was a large group of black voters who were swayed by his pitch on the economy whom he stands to lose if the job numbers fall.
If his spiel about the economic health of black Americans was also meant to provide political cover for the rest of his agenda, though, he might have more of a problem.