#BensTake: Reflections on the 2016 Election

#BensTake: Reflections on the 2016 Election

Living Cities’ CEO offers questions and initial reflections on what the election means for low-income people in America’s cities, and what it means for our work.

I have been working to try to make meaning of the Presidential election and its aftermath now for over a week. I keep focusing on a number of important and sometimes conflicting data points. Voter turnout was the lowest in twenty years. The exit polls showed that the majority of whites, including women, voted for Trump with two-thirds of non-college whites supporting him. More than a third of Latinos voted for the president-elect. One in ten millennials voted for a third party. Hillary Clinton looks like she will win the popular vote by as many as 2 million votes. Protests against the results have taken place in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Schools, elementary to college, have reported an uptick in acts of hate against Jews, Muslims and Blacks since election day.

With this limited information, I have been trying to grasp what this says about our country, what it means for low-income people in America’s cities and what it means for the work of Living Cities, the organization I lead. Of course, I do not have all the answers to those questions but ten days later, these are some of my initial takeaways:

First Things, First

We don’t know what policies President Trump will be promoting when he does take office. He has time to figure that out between now and January 2017. At this point, if we take his campaign promises at their face value, we need to be vigilant about our fundamental American values. To “bring the country together as never before,” as the President-elect stated on election night, he needs to go on his widely followed Twitter account and make it clear that he decries violence and hate against any American, without exception. The more often, the better. This is an easy thing to do and yet so critical for our nation’s future. The campaign was full of vitriol, but that cannot be the new normal. The change in tone and timbre needs to start with him.

Race and Women

The election clearly was, in part, a reaction to a changed America that many Americans simply are having a hard time coming to terms with. One is about race. The other is about women. There is no doubt that fear of demographic change played a role in this election.

In the 1970s, whites comprised 80 percent of the population. Today, while the shrinking white population remains a majority at 60 percent, that will not be the case for much longer. Already huge swathes of the country, including the states of California and New Mexico, are majority people of color. Texas is not far behind. More than 50 percent of the nation’s children today are of color.

And, women were 15 percent of the workforce in the 1970s but comprise almost half of all workers today. For the first time since the Census Bureau began collecting data on higher education attainment, women are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than men. Young women are driving the change. In the 25-34 age group, 37.5 percent of women have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while only 29.5 percent of men do. That is a radical change from the past when only 20.3 percent of women over 65 had such degrees, compared to 30.6 percent of men.

I understand that changes this fundamental can be jarring but they are irreversible and unquestionably good for America. The racial “diversity explosion” that will soon make whites just one of many non-majority racial groups, in particular, has been a boom for the American economy, as Brookings demographer William Frey documents in his book by that same name. To many economists, the participation of immigrants and women in the American workforce has set us apart from the rest of the world and has enabled economic growth, post Great Recession, which no other country has been able to replicate. The harsh reality is that the future economic strength of our nation is inextricably tied to the economic strength of these growing populations of color as much or more than that of the white population.

In short, our collective future lies in ensuring that all these racial groups fully prosper.

The…future economic strength of our nation is inextricably tied to the economic strength of…populations of color.

It is about the Economy, Stupid

That brings me to the economy. While anxiety about race and women were clearly part of the story, so was economic insecurity. And, economic insecurity and anxiety about demographic shifts are not unrelated. We see how they are connected in the rhetoric around immigration and how Mexican immigrants are “taking our jobs,” despite the fact that immigration from Mexico is currently at net zero. We see it in the very real fears of rural poor white Americans of being left behind, in some of their beliefs that this is because all of the resources are going to racially diverse cities.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, almost every American, whether low, middle or upper income, saw their household incomes go up 200 percent. Since that time, the incomes of most Americans increased 6 percent, less than .2 percent per year. We saw essentially free public college degrees and stable pensions disappear. In 1970, 45 percent of all private sector workers had a pension. Today, that number has shrunk to under 20 percent. At the same time, we saw more than 10 million high-paying manufacturing jobs disappear. Four decades ago, one in four Americans worked in manufacturing. Today, it’s one in ten. That was true for white and black Americans alike. In fact, manufacturing was disproportionately the pathway to the middle class for African Americans.

While millions of Americans have seen their economic conditions get worse over the last 40 years, neither party has implemented, or even proposed, meaningful steps to address them. A voter, quoted in the New York Times, summed it up well: “People feel despair when they hear that the economy is getting better but their own personal economy is not.” This has to be a wake-up call that we need to take a series of bold steps to address these trends, bold steps to benefit both the white rural worker and the urban worker of color.

This isn’t just a moral but an economic imperative. Today, our GDP is 73 percent dependent on consumer spending; up from only 64 percent in the 1970s. That means that if we don’t increase the incomes and economic well-being for a huge percentage of Americans fast, our economy will continue to weaken. That means dramatically closing the gaps in income and wealth between the shrinking upper-income white majority and everyone else, especially people of color.

People Want Change

The huge voter turnout in the primaries for Trump and Sanders was a scream for change by millions of Americans. Many of us did not hear it until we saw the results last week. Americans are anxious about race, women in the workforce, and income. And, they are also simply tired of the status quo. Exit polls reported that 58 percent of voters believed that the next generation of Americans will have a worse life, not better, than what people have today. Despite the country being at virtually full employment, 68 percent of voters reported that their economic condition was worse on Election Day than it was in 2012. The election of Donald Trump, the outsider, was the ultimate repudiation of both the Republican and Democratic approaches to change.

These takeaways really only tell me that we all have a lot of work to do. We need to heal a badly bruised nation. We need to acknowledge the economic pain that has been increasing for white Americans for 40 years, but that has been the reality for African Americans and other people of color for many decades more. We need to adopt bold solutions to our biggest challenges—education, jobs, housing and wealth creation—that we actually know work, but that we haven’t had the political will to make happen everywhere. We need Americans to lead from wherever they sit to re-knit our essential civic fabric and a commitment to the common good.

It is all but impossible not to feel uncertain about the future. I am committed to making sure that I and Living Cities are never deaf to the screams for change by Americans across the country. I am committed to making sure that my unique institution, Living Cities, can best help America through these anxious times and to a place where we are getting dramatically better results for low-income Americans, a whole lot faster.


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