CHICAGO – It is said that the best lies have a grain of truth in them. That’s the ideal way to characterize President Trump’s assertion in the State of the Union address that “African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American unemployment have all reached their lowest levels ever recorded.”
But only if you don’t count the fact that the data has stayed about the same for several years and is now ticking upward. Black unemployment reached a record low of 5.9 percent last May, but it rose to 6.8 percent in January, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Latino unemployment fell to a record-low 4.4 percent, its lowest in October, and Asian-American unemployment fell to 2.2 percent last May. But Latino and Asian-American unemployment have both increased in the past few months – at least in part because of the longest government shutdown in history.
Nevertheless, one of the most popular memes on Republicans’ Twitter and Facebook feeds after Trump’s speech was the lament that, as The Washington Examiner put it, “Democrats didn’t applaud Trump’s celebration of record-low minority unemployment.”
But that’s not because of partisanship that’s blind even to positive changes in the lives of workers.
It’s because people who really, deeply care about Hispanic and black unemployment data are very well-versed in the numbers – and they understand that those raw percentages don’t even come close to telling the full story.
For instance, the current African-American unemployment rate is still nearly double the jobless rate for whites, 3.5 percent.
And there is also a gap between white and Hispanic unemployment rates – and it’s not getting much narrower. In January 2017, the Hispanic jobless rate of 5.8 percent was 1.5 percentage points higher than the one for whites. And in January 2019, the Hispanic rate was 4.9 percent, 1.4 points higher than for whites.
Some might argue that those rates are disparate because whites represent nearly 61 percent of the U.S. population, compared with Latinos’ 18 percent. But they’d be hard pressed to explain away the fact that the wage gaps between these two groups are so pronounced. And these gaps are due to discrimination, not educational attainment level or relevant work experience, according to an Economic Policy Institute paper from July 2018.
“Attaining a college education has not closed the average Hispanic-white wage gap,” the paper concluded. “In 2016, Hispanic women with … a bachelor’s degree or more education … made 36.4 percent less than white men with a college education, which is a just slightly narrower pay gap than in 1980 (37.7 percent) and is essentially the same as the pay gap between Hispanic women and white men with less than a high school education (those who have not obtained a high school diploma or equivalent) in 2016 (36.3 percent).”
You can’t even blame immigration status for Latinos’ poorer foothold on the employment ladder. The report found that Puerto Ricans have almost consistently had higher unemployment rates than foreign-born Mexican-Americans and Cuban-Americans, even though Puerto Ricans enjoy U.S. citizenship from birth.
Even positive data showing that more Latinos are earning college degrees isn’t a good predictor that the earnings gaps will eventually close, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Marie T. Mora, professor of economics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. This is because so many other ethnic and racial groups, including low-income whites, are also making gains in college education, she told me.
“In fact, depending on the metric you’re looking at, some gaps have widened,” Mora said.
She added that some places around the country – such as south Texas, where she now lives – have been trending downward in the number of Latinos age 25-64 who are college graduates.
And not because of immigration. The phenomenon is occurring among U.S.-born Hispanics, many of whom, like their white counterparts, have become disillusioned with the idea of college as an economic savior and instead see it as millennials increasingly do: a potentially ruinous financial albatross of student loans that could hang around their necks for a lifetime and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy court.
Until blacks and Hispanics don’t have to work twice as hard to get only a fraction as far as whites, no one should expect a smile and applause for a disturbing and unacceptable status quo.
E-mail email@example.com; Twitter: @estherjcepeda. © 2019, Washington Post Writers Group.