Project 21 New Visions

B.B. Robinson

Are You Better Off Today?


by B.B. Robinson, Ph.D. (bio)


In 1980, asking the American people to assess President Jimmy Carter's performance, Ronald Reagan posed the question: "Are you better off [now] than you were four years ago?"

It was a simple yet very important question.

Today, as President Barack Obama's term of office comes to an end, asking that question again is very reasonable — especially taking into account the economic turmoil that ushered him into the White House. And, considering that Obama received almost monolithic support from the black community, it is highly relevant to ask the question in terms of how things have gone for them since 2008.

Are black Americans better off now than they were four years ago?

One simple assessment of Obama's performance can be determined by examining employment statistics. How has the jobs situation changed for black America since 2008?

Obama enjoyed two years of a House and Senate controlled by the same political party as him, and they quickly appropriated nearly a trillion dollars in "stimulus" spending that was meant to help save and create jobs. Did it work? Did it work for his most loyal constituency?

Comparing data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics over the period of January 2009 — when President Obama took office — and April of 2012 shows that the overall black unemployment rate rose from 12.6 percent then to 13.0 percent now.

While it was an overall increase, things are different with regard to unemployment among the sexes and who's actually still out there seeking employment.

Actually, the black male unemployment rate fell from 14.1 percent in January of 2009 to 13.6 percent in April of 2012. On the surface, this may look like an improvement, but the unemployment rate is lower than it should be now, in large measure because of a drop in the labor force participation rate. Those who haven't given up on finding a job altogether fell from 70.7 percent in January 2009 to 67.3 percent in April of 2012.

For black women, the unemployment rate rose from 9.2 percent at the start of Obama's presidency to 10.8 percent last April. The other negative aspect of the statistics is that the black female labor force participation rate also fell from 64.1 percent in then to 62.8 percent now.

Clearly, on the jobs front, conditions have become less favorable for black Americans during the course of the Obama presidency. While conditions may seem to have improved a bit for black men, the statistics are hiding a significant rise in those who have given up on finding work and have joined the so-called "discouraged workers." Black women have certainly seen a deterioration in their unemployment status, and similarly seen a rise in the number of discouraged workers.

Black Americans are not better off today than they were four years ago. At least not when it comes to employment woes.

The big question is whether this clear evidence of the deterioration in black America's quality of life affects Obama's approval rating. In the 2008 election, Obama received over 95 percent of the black vote. As of January 2012, an ABC News-Washington Post poll found that black approval was still an astonishingly high 91 percent.

But, as the jobs situation continues to fester, and increasing debt and the threat of entitlement insolvency looms, good feelings may yet sour. The good thing about living in American is that one always has a choice.

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B.B. Robinson, Ph.D., is a member of the national advisory council of the black leadership network Project 21. You can visit his website at www.blackeconomics.org. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21, other Project 21 members, or the National Center for Public Policy Research, its board or staff.


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