2008 election, 2016 election, African Americans, Bill Clinton, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Donald Trump, Employment, government jobs, Hillary Clinton, Im-Politic, race, race relations, racism, subsidized private sector
Even by the off-the-wall standards of this presidential campaign, one of the most stunning spectacles has entailed the reactions by many African-Americans (and many of their supposed leaders) to Donald Trump’s appeal for their votes. The Republican presidential candidate’s insistence that Democratic politicians like his rival for the White House, Hillary Clinton, have failed blacks, and therefore don’t deserve the overwhelming support they enjoy, has been met with everything from howls of bitter laughter to outbursts of outrage. And this despite an almost non-stop litany of complaints from these same voices about how too many African-Americans still lag economically and face debilitating racism.
Major reasons for the blowback triggered by Trump’s appeal have already been widely highlighted – ranging from the claim that his pitch has ignored black progress that has been made to the sluggishness with which he has failed to disavow support from a former Ku Klux Klan leader and other white supremacists to (unproven) charges that his family’s real estate ventures discriminated against black tenant applicants. Then add to these Republicans’ reluctance to use government to solve this community’s biggest problems and what leading conservative lights often admit is the GOP’s decades-long failure to court African-American voters systematically.
As a result, it’s easy to see why so many African-Americans apparently have decided to overlook criticisms raised (often by African Americans) about the race relations record of Clinton and her husband, the former president. These include Clinton administration welfare reform and policing measures unpopular with much of the minority population, and both Clintons’ use of supposedly insensitive racial rhetoric during her 2008 Democratic primary race versus then Senator Barack Obama.
But there’s one possible factor behind African-Americans’ evident mass support for Clinton, and their equally evident alarm that Trump might win, that deserves more attention. And this consideration is especially important since it looms as a major barrier to future Republican success with blacks as long as the GOP remains the party of limited government, and no matter how lousy the economy or the state of much of Black America gets.
It has to do with African-Americans’ outsized dependence on jobs both in the public sector and in parts of the economy heavily subsidized by government spending. What the data shows is that American blacks have good reason to view government not only as a provider of many essential services and resources, but as an engine of jobs (and therefore financial stability) and opportunity. Perhaps equally important – this government role has grown steadily during the economy’s generally weak recovery under President Obama.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data could not make these conclusions clearer. Take its “public administration” jobs category. In 2002 (the first 21st century year for which data exist), African Americans made up 10.9 percent of Americans over the age of 16 employed either in the public or private sectors. But their share of “public administration” jobs was much higher: 16.5 percent. Moreover, that category doesn’t include government groupings like “urban transit” (where African-Americans comprised 28.1 percent of all workers. Or the U.S. Postal Service (23.1 percent).
Blacks were also over-represented in the government-subsidized industries like healthcare services and social assistance agencies. There are no 2002 statistics combining the most conspicuous of these together. But African-American workers accounted for 16.7 percent of all the nation’s hospital workers that year, 15.1 percent of healthcare workers outside hospitals, and nearly one in five employees at social assistance agencies.
During the year the Great Recession ended, 2009, blacks’ share of all adult U.S. workers fell to 10.7 percent – indicating how hard they were hit by the downturn. But here’s their representation in the public and government-subsidized sectors:
Public administration: 15.6 percent (surely because public payrolls started shrinking)
Subsidized private sector total: 14.0 percent
Urban transit: 28.3 percent (an increase)
Postal Service: 20.3 percent (a decrease)
The cuts in government employment accelerated for most of the time through 2015 (the last year for which data is available). Thanks to the economic recovery, the African-American share of total U.S. adult employment regained a full percentage point, to 11.7 percent. But blacks’ share of falling government employment grew as well:
Public administration: 16.9 percent (despite the continued cuts in overall government employment)
Subsidized private sector total: 14.8 percent
Urban transit: 30.5 percent
Postal Service: 24.2 percent (back above 2002 levels)
Not that this African-American employment pattern is a first in U.S. history. Far from it. Especially in northeastern cities, new European immigrant groups used the patronage and overall powers won via political victories to employ their former fellow compatriots. These government jobs, in turn, became pillars of the nation’s rapidly growing middle class and the widespread prosperity it helped foster.
These data, however, also show what a mortal threat at least in principal Small Government conservatives and Republicans pose to government employment’s role in the advances the black community has achieved. The Right may have completely valid points in contending, for example, that this recipe for economic and financial success has left too many sidelined and outright failed too many others; resulted in huge opportunity costs even for the beneficiaries; encouraged attitudes of dependency; or (at best) run out its string for all the black wealth it has generated.
But especially to a population whose sense of economic security is understandably fragile, and whose faith in the career potential available in private industry is understandably limited, Small Government conservatism amounts to a proposal to exchange a bird in the hand for two in the bush. (On top of the reduced services implicitly promised to the less well-off.) So unless Republicans change their philosophy significantly, or more convincingly argue that African-Americans should take this kind of chance, the answer they’ll get from most blacks to Trump’s question, “What the hell do you have to lose” will continue to be “More than you can know.”