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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

"When you look at these unemployment gaps and these earnings gaps, blacks have to have more education to make the same amount of money or get the same unemployment rate of whites who are less educated," said William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO.

When it comes to high school graduation rates, African-Americans have sharply narrowed the gap with whites over the years, with 87.1 percent of all blacks having completed at least a high school education in 2016, compared with 89.5 percent for whites. Twenty years ago, that gap was almost 10 percentage points.

But the biggest income premiums come with four-year college degrees, and here black Americans have barely made a dent in the big higher-education racial divide that has existed for decades. The gap has actually widened for the current cohort of young adults, blacks and whites who are 25 to 29 years old -- with 37 percent of whites and 23.3 percent of blacks having at least a college degree, according to census figures.

"For now labor markets are tight and that's a good thing," said Harry Holzer, an economist and public policy professor at Georgetown University. But then, he said, the question is, "When the demand is there, what are we doing to create the supply, the greater supply of workers with appropriate skills?"

In recent years, more companies have partnered with community colleges and vocational schools for apprenticeship and other programs to develop advanced skills for jobs, but it remains to be seen whether public funds will continue to be there to support them.

Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center who specializes in education, said one of the biggest targets in discretionary budget cuts will be the federal Pell grant -- a $22.5 billion annual subsidy provided to higher-education students that has disproportionately benefited minorities and helped boost attendance at community colleges and other schools.

States could also begin to raise public university tuitions, thanks to federal tax changes that limit deductions for state and local income taxes to $10,000. Before, this deduction was uncapped and so dampened the effect of high state and local taxes, which in turn had the result of subsidizing expenditures in high-tax states such as California.

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"It could definitely have an impact on this population" of black Americans and college attendance, Rueben said.

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GRAPHIC (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): 20180201 Black unemployment

 

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