Trump talking point on black unemployment rate vaporizes

Live by the numbers, die by the numbers.

Credit: Getty images
Credit: Getty images

In his inaugural State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Donald Trump boasted about the state of the economy, specifically citing the record-low unemployment rate of black individuals.

“Unemployment claims have hit a 45-year low,” said Trump. “African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded, and Hispanic American unemployment has also reached the lowest levels in history.”

That is no longer true.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the black unemployment rate rose almost a full percentage point from last month. In December, black unemployment was at 6.8 percent, by January, it had risen to 7.7 percent. It is now virtually unchanged from the rate when Trump took office, 7.8 percent. 

The first jobs report of 2018 proves to be a cautionary tale from the president, that celebrating an isolated “low” number doesn’t tell the whole story and is subject to change from month-to-month.

Trump had little to do with the December unemployment rate anyway.

As Washington Post reporter Philip Bump noted recently, Trump was taking credit for a longterm trend that slowed under his watch.

It’s not as if black unemployment was 18 percent under Barack Obama and, as soon as Trump took office, it plummeted. Black unemployment fell fairly consistently from 2010 on, as did the rates for whites and Hispanics.

From January to December 2017, the unemployment rate among black Americans fell 1 percentage point. During the same period in 2016, it fell the same amount. In 2015, it fell 1.9 points. The previous year, it fell 1.5 points. The year before that, it fell 1.8 points

The unemployment rate for whites is 3.5 percent, almost less than half of black unemployment. Hispanic unemployment is also higher than white unemployment — at 5 percent.

Trump has expressed little concern about the double-difference disparity that is a “historic fixture of racial discrimination at play in our national economy,” as ThinkProgress’ Sam Fulwood put it.

The January jobs report revealed some good news as well: Paychecks rose at the fastest pace in eight years. Average earnings rose by nine cents an hour and are up 2.9 percent over the past year.

Some of that change, however, is due to policies on the state level. 18 states raised their minimum wages on January 1, a move which added $5 billion in additional wages to 4.5 million workers across the country.

During the campaign Trump advocated a variety of conflicting positions, including everything from raising the federal minimum wage to eliminating it entirely. As President, he has shown no interest in increasing the federal minimum wage.

 

The problem with the state-by-state approach is that state and local wage raises, while important, are not a substitute for a federal raise. States like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee do not even have state minimum wage laws, largely due to the south’s antipathy towards labor movements.