WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump bragged this week that African American joblessness is at the lowest rate ever, but advocates and experts say there is still a long way to go from what one called “depression-type” black unemployment in Arizona.
Despite an improving employment picture, African Americans still lag the rest of the state on any number of economic measures. The 9 percent unemployment rate for 2017 was almost twice the state average of 4.7 percent, while black incomes were lower and poverty rates higher.
“People of color, if they are born into poverty, more than likely they all die in poverty,” said George Dean, president and CEO of the Phoenix Urban League.
Most minority groups in the state fared poorly on economic indicators, with Hispanics and Native Americans also trailing whites, Asians and the state as a whole.
But Trump was focused on the positive Tuesday during his first State of the Union address, when he claimed administration policies had the economy booming.
“Since the election we have created 2.4 million jobs … after years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages,” Trump said. He noted that unemployment claims were at a 45-year low, singling out black and Hispanic joblessness as being at the “lowest levels in history.”
The speech came on the eve of Black History Month and just days before new national jobless numbers, released Friday, showed upticks in unemployment for every group but whites in January. But that does not negate the gains of the past year, one expert said.
“The unemployment rate for African Americans is still well above that of the national average and other race groups, but that is not a reason to dismiss improvement,” said Rachel Greszler, a research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements at the Heritage Foundation, in a written statement.
“Progress takes time, and the fact that over 300,000 African Americans held jobs at end of 2017 that did not have jobs at the beginning 2017 is progress,” she said.
Bart Hobijn, an economics professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, said Trump can’t take all the credit, noting that unemployment rates have been improving since 2014.
“This is nothing new,” Hobijn said.
“There’s still a big unemployment rate” for African Americans, he said. But “just like the rest of the country they are seeing improvements.”
Dean has an explanation for unemployment gap minority groups face.
“It has to be racism,” he said, charging Trump’s rhetoric with emboldening racists in the country. “With Trump being president, he has given the irate citizen the inspiration … to be as racist as they want to be.”
Dean said that focusing on unemployment is oversimplifying the situation, pointing to the high poverty rate and low-paying jobs in the black community.
“We are still the last hired and the first fired,” he said, at jobs that are not nearly as good as those filled by the rest of the population.
The median income for blacks in Arizona was $39,991 in 2016, compared to a statewide average of $51,340 that year, according to Census Bureau data. It said that 23.8 percent of African Americans in Arizona lived below the poverty line in 2016, well above the state average of 17.7 percent Arizonans in poverty.
Blacks made up a smaller portion of homeowners in the state, compared to their share of the overall state population, while whites were overrepresented, the Census data showed.
Dean thinks the best hope for improvement is through a strong black voting bloc in Arizona. With blacks making up 4 to 5 percent of the state population, they need “to turn out 80, 90 percent of the vote… if we take that 5 percent and vote as a bloc, we can make a difference.”
While much work needs to be done, Dean said he will never give up hope.
“Poverty has a devastating on the lives of people,” Dean said, but he is going to “keep fighting to change these sorts of things.”