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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rand Paul, Obama & Black Unemployment

Sen. Rand Paul says “black unemployment in America is double white unemployment” and “hasn’t budged” under President Obama. Actually, the black unemployment rate is lower now than when Obama took office, and the gap between the races is below the historical average. The black unemployment rate has averaged more than double the white rate for several decades.

Paul discussed black unemployment on “Fox News Sunday” when asked if he supports Obama’s call to extend additional unemployment benefits. The Kentucky senator told host Chris Wallace that he opposes the extension, adding that Obama’s policies have not worked for African-Americans.

Paul, Dec. 8: When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy. And it really — while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you’re trying to help.

You know, I don’t doubt the president’s motives. But black unemployment in America is double white unemployment. And it hasn’t budged under this president.

Wallace: But, senator —

Paul: I think a lot of African-Americans voted for him, but I don’t think it’s worked. I don’t think his policies have worked.

It is true that the black unemployment rate for November was double the white unemployment rate. The rate in November was 12.5 percent for blacks and 6.2 percent for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unfortunately, this is not new. In a February 2010 article in the Population Association of America journal Demography, authors Kenneth Couch and Robert Fairlie wrote that “[t]he unemployment rate among blacks in the United States has been roughly double that of whites for several decades.”

Couch and Fairlie, February 2010: In the period from 1972 to 2004, the average rate of unemployment was 12.4 percent for black males versus 5.4 percent for whites. The ratio of these two rates, 2.3, is consistent with the observation that unemployment among blacks typically doubles that of whites.

Not much has changed since then. In an Aug. 31 blog post, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center wrote that “the unemployment rate for blacks has averaged about 2.2 times that for whites” since 1954 — which is the earliest that BLS has reliable unemployment data by race.

The current 12.5 percent unemployment rate for blacks is unquestionably high. But by historical standards the current black unemployment rate is consistent with the average from 1972 to 2004, and the ratio of black-to-white unemployment rates is actually below the historical average.

We looked at the average rate of unemployment for blacks and whites in the first 58 months of the last four presidents who were reelected to a second term: Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. (We averaged the monthly unemployment rates from the first February in office to the first November in their second term.)

Obama had the lowest average ratio (1.9), followed by Bush (2.1), Clinton (2.2), and Reagan (2.3).

Unemployment average

Paul was talking about the November unemployment rates and ratio — not the 58-month average unemployment rate and ratio — but even by that measure the black-to-white unemployment ratio is lower under Obama (2) than it was under Reagan (2.6), Clinton (2.4) and Bush (2.5) at this point in their second terms.

Unemployment rates

Paul also said that the black unemployment rate “hasn’t budged” under Obama, but it has. It reached a high of 16.8 percent in March 2010 and dropped to a low of 12.5 percent in November — lower than the 12.7 percent rate when Obama took office. That wasn’t the case for two of his recent predecessors, Reagan and Bush.

Under Reagan, the black unemployment rate went up a full percentage point from 14.6 percent in January 1981 to 15.6 percent in November 1985 — even as the white unemployment rate fell from 6.7 percent to 5.9 percent.

Under Bush, the rates went up for both blacks and whites. But it went up faster for blacks, from 8.2 percent in January 2001 to 10.6 percent in November 2005 — the biggest increase in the black unemployment rate of any of the four presidents at that point in their second terms. The white unemployment rate went up more than a half percentage point, from 3.6 percent to 4.3 percent.

(We did not compare Obama to George H.W. Bush, since he did not serve two terms. But, for the record, the average black unemployment rate was 12.4 during the elder Bush’s four years in office, while the white rate was 5.5 percent. That’s an average black-to-white ratio of 2.3 to 1 — identical to the historical average from 1972 to 2004.)

Few would disagree with Paul that the black unemployment rate is unacceptably high and he is entitled to his opinion about the president’s policies. But to blame Obama for the black unemployment rate being double the white rate ignores decades of data and fails to put this president in historical context.

— Eugene Kiely