Commentary: Surprise! Trump polices have helped minority workers

The other surprise: His trade wars have broken his campaign promises to help the white working class.

By Karl W. Smith / Bloomberg Opinion

Despite his reputation for being racially divisive, President Trump’s approval ratings have drifted upward among nonwhites in the last two years. While it’s impossible to say exactly why, one reasonable explanation is that the U.S.’s long economic expansion has been particularly beneficial for minority workers.

There is strong evidence that Trump’s rhetoric on race is hurting him among minorities. Nonetheless, in the latest Gallup poll of presidential job approval, Trump stands at 20 percent among nonwhites, up from a low of 14 percent in January. For comparison, the president’s approval ratings among self-identified liberals and moderates are 6 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

While Trump’s tweets may be hurting him among minorities, the economy is no doubt helping. As the president is fond of pointing out, unemployment rates among African Americans, Hispanics and Asians are all at historic lows (though it should be noted that data on Asian unemployment rates dates to only 2000).

Just as important, the unemployment gaps between both blacks and whites and Hispanics and whites have reached all-time lows. It’s not just that the job market has been good: For minorities, it has been historically good.

This pattern is not uncommon during economic expansions. The longer a tight labor market persists, the more willing employers become to consider applicants they once would have passed over. Social networks between employers and marginalized communities strengthen, and companies get better at attracting and retaining minority workers.

As opportunities for racial minorities grow, wages rise faster as well. Over the past 12 months wage gains for nonwhites have been not only substantially higher than those of whites, but also higher than economists’ estimates of inflation plus productivity. That implies that minority workers are getting a greater share of GDP.

It is ironic, of course, that this is all occurring under a president who ran on a not-so-subtle campaign to revive the white working class. Trump’s policies, however, have worked against those goals. The effects of the administration’s tax cuts — and the strong consumer spending they spurred — have been felt most in metropolitan areas with a high proportion of wealthier households. The spending has gone largely to services, which are provided by local workers.

Rural areas and the industrial heartland, by contrast, are far more dependent on exports of agricultural and manufacturing products; and as such, have been hurt by the president’s trade war. As a result, it’s unlikely that Trump will be able to capitalize politically on improved economic conditions for minorities. They may shore up some of his support in the Sun Belt, but they are unlikely to help in most battleground states.

Rhetoric tends to dominate the political narrative. Yet policy is far more important in determining outcomes for workers. Wittingly or not, Trump’s policy has been more favorable to minority workers than they expected; and less favorable to the white working class than he promised.

Karl W. Smith is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina’s school of government and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior.

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