A key base of support for the Democratic Party, black America, is lagging in its recovery from the recession and demanding more attention to economic issues than white voters. That divide could complicate presidential contenders’ attempts to woo African-American votes in 2020.
A decade after the financial crisis, with national employment below 4 percent and wage gains slowly accelerating for typical workers, white Democrats largely see economic issues as a lower priority, according to polling conducted for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey. The opposite is true for African-Americans, who are struggling even as the economy is growing relatively fast, and who want candidates to focus on job creation above all else.
Black Democrats are more likely than white Democrats to say they benefit “less than most others” from the current economy. They are significantly more likely than whites to call jobs and the economy the most important issue facing the nation. White Democrats are significantly more likely to cite health care as the top issue, followed by the environment, with jobs a distant third.
The difference holds even when controlling for age, education, employment status and other voter traits that are not related to race.
“There has been an economic boom for some people but not enough people, and certainly not enough people who look like me,” said Joyce Wilson Harley, a survey respondent and former Democratic elected official in South Orange, N.J.
Ms. Harley, who is black, said she was doing fine financially. But she said she didn’t have to look far to see people who were struggling. And she said mainstream Democrats, including many presidential candidates, had focused too little on jobs, wages and other core economic issues. If Democrats were listening to black voters, she said, “you’d be hearing more about economic opportunities.”
“It’s almost like they don’t get it,” Ms. Harley, 68, said. “The black women who carry the party, we were ignored and really highly disrespected, and our issues weren’t as important to the Democrats as they should be given that we’re the base of the Democratic Party.”
Seeking to highlight the concerns of black voters, the Democratic National Committee convened an African-American Leadership Summit on Thursday in Atlanta, an event that drew several of the presidential candidates.
Black voters overwhelmingly say they trust Democrats over Republicans on economic issues. And leading Democratic campaigns say that they recognize the struggles that black Democrats face and that they are devising policies to address them, including specific attempts to narrow the wage and wealth gaps between blacks and whites. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, for example, has pushed policies to reduce racial discrimination in housing and higher education. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has proposed an education plan that includes efforts to reduce segregation in schools.
“We’re not surprised to hear this, because for African-Americans, we never recover in this country,” said Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator who is a co-chairwoman of Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign. Mr. Sanders “does understand the disparities,” she added. “He talks about them all the time.”
Mr. Sanders’s pollster, Ben Tulchin, said the campaign’s focus groups had revealed widespread economic anxieties among working-class Democrats, even in an improving economy.
“We’re seeing that across the spectrum, whether you’re African-American, Latino or white working class,” Mr. Tulchin said.
Even in prosperous states like California, he said, voters are seeing extravagant new construction, yet feel that “I’m falling behind, or my wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living, so I’m feeling a lot of economic pressure.”
The Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., has built his lead in the polls in part on strong support from black voters. Aides say his economy-themed stump speech takes pains to acknowledge the pain of nonwhite workers.
“When we’re talking about working Americans, rebuilding the backbone of the country, we’re talking about black folks, brown folks, women, Asia-Pacific islanders,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign. “We want to make clear that when we say the middle class is hurting, voters understand that’s a middle class that represents everyone.”
But Alicia Garza, a prominent black activist, said that even when candidates talked about economic issues, they tended not to acknowledge the particular challenges facing African-Americans and other groups. Criminal justice reform, for example, is an economic issue for both incarcerated people and their families, she said, but it is rarely framed that way. The cost of college hits black families harder because they earn less on average and have less accumulated wealth.
“The disconnect between black voters and candidates who are talking about economic issues is that they often talk abut them in a race-neutral way,” Ms. Garza said. “Black communities differ when we talk about economic issues because there are these added barriers.”
Ms. Garza’s organization, the Black Futures Lab, recently ran a survey of more than 31,000 black people across the country. Eight-five percent of the respondents cited “low wages that are not enough to sustain a family” as a major problem, and 76 percent said the same about a lack of affordable housing. And while most respondents identified as Democrats, many were dissatisfied with the party: One in five people in the survey expressed an unfavorable view of the party.
“We’re waiting throughout the entire campaign season for some candidate to just hit the right note, and it’s so rare that they do,” Ms. Garza said.
President Trump has often claimed that his economic policies are benefiting African-Americans, and he proclaimed on Twitter and at campaign rallies last year that the black unemployment rate had hit its lowest level on record. The rate has risen since then, however, to 6.7 percent in April from a low of 5.9 percent in May last year.
The unemployment rate for black Americans is more than double the white unemployment rate, which was 3.1 percent in April — down from 3.5 percent in April 2018. Since the recession, wages have risen more slowly for black workers than for workers of other races.
Federal Reserve officials reported last month that “gaps in economic well-being by race and ethnicity have persisted even as overall well-being has improved since 2013” — with African-Americans and Hispanics continuing to lag. In the Fed’s “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018,” nearly four in five whites said they were “at least doing O.K. financially.” Only two in three black respondents said they were at least doing O.K.
Compounding the challenge for candidates is that the Democratic divide in economic optimism, along racial lines, runs the other way: Blacks are more hopeful than whites. Black Democrats are more than twice as likely as whites to say they expect to be better off financially a year from now than they are today.
When Geoffrey Cooper, who is black, graduated from college in 2009, few jobs were available for young people of any race. Today, things are better. The economy in Atlanta, where he lives, is strong, and Mr. Cooper and his wife are thinking about buying a house.
But Mr. Cooper, 32, said the financial crisis and its aftermath had left him and many of his peers aware of how fragile even a seemingly sturdy economy could be. And he said the economy was working better for people like him who have college degrees than for the majority of workers who did not.
“I would love to see candidates come to here and talk about jobs and talk about why is it that we still expect $7.25, the minimum wage, to be an effective wage,” he said. “That’s real-life stuff that people care about, and Democrats have got to talk to those issues.”
Democrats, he said, have too often campaigned for black votes without listening to black voters.
“Democrats who want the endorsements of the N.A.A.C.P. or the endorsement of Al Sharpton, they go up to Harlem and go to Red Rooster or Sylvia’s,” he said, referring to restaurants that are frequent locations for campaign photo opportunities. “They’re not talking to people who are affected by these everyday problems.”
Many candidates for the Democratic nomination, including Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden, argue that their policy proposals — such as free college and “Medicare for all” — would help everyday voters, including many African-Americans. But Mr. Cooper, who works in marketing for an electronics manufacturer, said he did not like the leftward turn of the party.
“Come to the middle, where the majority of America is, and talk about a sensible solution,” he said.
About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 2,574 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from May 6 to May 12. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus three percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.