Whites Weren’t Left Behind by the Economic Recovery

Whites Weren’t Left Behind by the Economic Recovery
AP Photo/Claire Galofaro

Are white workers the victims of the post-crisis economy? Have they lost out to racial minorities in the job market?

That’s the argument in a recent New York Times story. Eduardo Porter writes:

“Despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the labor force, Hispanics got more than half of the net additional jobs [since November 2007]. Blacks and Asians also gained millions more jobs than they lost. But whites, who account for 78 percent of the labor force, lost more than 700,000 net jobs over the nine years.”

It’s a startling storyline that would seem to fit the “economic anxiety” explanation for the 2016 election. According to this view, the white working class was “left behind” in the Obama economy and thus voted for Trump.

But there’s a basic problem with this data: The American population is changing. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic group, and whites are declining as a share of the working-age population.

So what if, instead of looking at net jobs added, we look at the employment-to-population ratios for each of these groups? (See Figure 1.) A different story emerges. 

Figure 1.  Data taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey.

Taking this more rigorous approach, we find different conclusions:

1. Working-age whites had (and still have) vastly better employment outcomes. The margin of advantage for working-age whites has bounced around, but working-age minorities are still far from equaling them in employment rates.

2. All groups’ employment suffered during the recession, but blacks suffered the most. Whites went from a prime-age employment rate of 81 percent to a recession low of 76 percent — a five-point drop. But blacks dropped eight percentage points, from 74 percent before the crisis to 66 percent at the bottom. 

3. All groups have gained ground since the recession, but none has recovered fully. Whites are furthest away from their previous high, but they also started from the highest point. The idea that white employment has not improved at all during the recovery is simply false.

This is not to deny that certain regions and communities across the country that have suffered more economically than others, or that there are less-educated white workers whose economic fortunes are struggling. But the same is true for less-educated workers in other racial and ethnic groups. (See figure 2.) 

Figure 2. Data taken from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey.

In other words, it has become harder for less-skilled whites to find jobs that can sustain a middle-class life — just as it has for blacks, Asians, and Latinos.

David Brown is the deputy director for the Economic Program at Third Way.

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