In May 2018, even if you didn’t feel it in your personal world, Black History was made. For the first time since the federal government began breaking down the county’s unemployment numbers by race, the unemployment rate for Black Americans fell below 6.0% to 5.9%.
In fact, Black Americans experienced a year of record-breaking low-unemployment in 2018 with the rate staying below 7.0% from February through Jan. 2019 when the rate peeked again at 7.0% Prior to hitting an unemployment rate of 7.0 in 2017, the unemployment rate had not been that low for Black Americans since April 2000 – a full 17 years.
Trump has spent months boasting that unemployment has fallen during his presidency, pointing to the numbers as proof his policies are benefiting all Americans and to try to deflect the accusations of racism and bigotry that surround him and his administration.
Trump’s claims about the Black unemployment rate are somewhat misleading. While it’s undeniable that the rate has hit a new low, it is also true that Black unemployment began declining during the Obama administration and has been falling steadily for the past several years.
Obama took office at the height of a financial crisis, banks and car companies were nearly bankrupt and there was a big housing bust. Because of these factors, unemployment rates for all Americans raced up. During Obama’s first year in office, the Black unemployment rate peaked at 16.1% but by the time he left office, he had cut that number in half to 7.8%. Certainly the Obama administration has to be given credit for such a rapid economic turnaround.
Previously, it took 15 years – twice Obama’s eight – to have a similar 50% reduction in Black unemployment. In 1984, under Ronald Reagan, Black unemployment hovered around 16%. It took through the George H.W. Bush and to near end of the Clinton administration (1999) for the rate to reach 7.7%.
Trump hasn’t reversed the Obama gains, but that doesn’t mean he can claim full credit for them either.
More importantly, Black unemployment is still higher than White unemployment, and higher than the unemployment rates of other racial groups. And while these most recent numbers mean the unemployment gap between Blacks and Whites has narrowed to the lowest point since it began being measured, the difference suggests that there’s still a lot more to be done.
Just looking at the Black unemployment rate tells an incomplete story.
Historically, Black unemployment rates have typically been much higher than that of other groups, and often double that of Whites.
That pattern largely held true in May 2018, with the 5.9 unemployment rate for Blacks remained higher than that of Hispanics (4.%), Asians (2.1%), and Whites (3.5%).
The reasons for the Black-White employment gap are complicated, and research suggests that there’s no single cause. A common argument is that the effects of racial bias and discrimination play a role in hiring, causing African Americans to be passed over for jobs. Others point to the differences in education levels between white and Black people as a factor, although studies have shown that Black college graduates have the same chance of getting a job as a White person with less education.
Meanwhile, a June 2017 paper released by the Federal Reserve found that Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to lose jobs than Whites, leaving more of them at least temporarily unemployed.
There’s also the issue of exactly how many African Americans might be missed in the unemployment numbers altogether. The BLS figures usually focus on those who are not employed but are looking for work, a number that does not include those who have stopped seeking employment. Unemployment numbers also fail to count incarcerated people, and it is likely that Black unemployment in particular would be much higher if they were included.
All these factors mean it’s probably best to be happy with our gains, but to recognize how we still drag behind. As Janelle Jones, an analyst with the Economic Policy Institute told another reporter, “We don’t get to set a very low bar for economic success for Black workers and then applaud ourselves when we reach it.”