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Why Trump's bragging of record low black unemployment misses the mark

Don Lee, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- In his maiden State of the Union address and earlier comments, President Donald Trump has crowed about black unemployment falling to the lowest level on record. And many analysts credit tax cuts, deregulation and other policies with bolstering the economy.

But what Trump does not mention is that well before he took office, joblessness had been falling steadily for all groups, not just blacks. Moreover, the historically low black unemployment rate that Trump boasted of was 6.8 percent. That's roughly double the comparable jobless figure for white Americans in December.

"I would dare say, if we were talking about national or white unemployment at 6.8 percent, it would not be cause for celebration," said Valerie Wilson, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

Truth is, she said, the economic condition of black families, while having improved in recent years as it has for most Americans, is far from good. On measures of labor, education, health and income, their standing remains well below that of white Americans, and in some cases the gap has been widening.

Research from the University of Chicago, for example, shows that the difference in median earnings between blacks and whites has followed an uneven path -- showing both gains and significant reversals.

During the years from 1940 to the mid-1970s, the income gap shrank. Then the positive trend reversed and by 2014 the difference between black and white earnings had grown to be as large as it was in 1950.

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That narrowed a bit in 2016 as black households saw a sharp 5.7 percent jump in median household income, the largest of any racial group, to $39,490, according to the Census Bureau.

The median household income for white households was $61,858 in 2016, climbing enough to surpass the previous inflation-adjusted record in 2000. Black incomes are still 5 percent shy of the previous high of $41,363 in 2000.

Still, on the plus side, more African-Americans are now working year-round in full-time jobs. And if U.S. economic growth picks up and overall unemployment, now at about 4 percent, drops further as expected, black workers stand to benefit -- as do Latinos, less-educated workers and others who are disadvantaged in the job market.

January's jobless rate is set to be released Friday. What happens to black unemployment from now on will be something Trump can more justifiably take credit for, or blame.

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