White economic anxiety evaporated after the 2016 election. Now black economic anxiety is on the rise.

  • President Donald Trump walks to Marine One on March 20, 2019.

    President Donald Trump walks to Marine One on March 20, 2019. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

 
 

New data show economic anxiety among white Americans has evaporated in the age of Donald Trump, falling to levels last seen during the George W. Bush administration.

White pessimism defined the 2016 presidential campaign. Between 2006 and 2016, non-Hispanic whites had worried about falling standards of living at much higher rates than their black and Hispanic compatriots.

The role of economic anxiety among working-class whites was widely debated in the wake of Trump's election in 2016. Use of the phrase "economic anxiety" in American news coverage peaked in November of that year, according to the News on the Web database.

- Washington Post Graphic

As white economic anxiety has eased, African Americans are registering their highest levels of economic anxiety since at least 2000. The measure has also been rising among the Hispanic population. The data comes from an analysis of the long-running General Social Survey by Jed Kolko, chief economist at the job-search site Indeed.

These trends suggest that people's perceptions of their economic experiences are shaped by who holds power as much as economic realities, Kolko said. The U.S. economy expanded at an annualized rate of 2.6 percent in the most recent quarter. And black and Hispanic unemployment rates have declined faster than the white unemployment rate since 2016, even if they remain markedly higher overall.

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"Partisanship affects how people feel about the economy, how people think Trump is handling the economy, and which labor-market policies they support," Kolko said.

The partisan divide in economic anxiety is sharp even among white respondents. Democrats' outlook has remained relatively steady throughout the period. But while in 2016, 31 percent of white Republicans believed living standards wouldn't improve, just 8 percent held the same expectation in 2018. The GSS is conducted throughout the year, but Kolko said "nearly all" the responses for 2016 came in before Election Day.

Annual job growth has been faster in red states than blue ones for much of the past year, Kolko found. But the gains are due to changes in commodities and global economic conditions and "unrelated to politics."

On the whole, it's unlikely a slight acceleration in job growth or policy changes such as tax reform or deregulation explain vanishing white Republican economic anxiety. The University of Michigan's consumer-sentiment index, which also tracks consumers' political identification, shows Republicans' outlook reversed course around the 2016 election, well before most of Trump's policies took effect.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

To be sure, sentiment has risen slightly since then. A November Post-ABC poll found that even 51 percent of Democrats say the economy is in excellent or good shape. That was up from 39 percent in January.

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Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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