As protests and unrest spread across major cities around the country, many have observed that anger and sustained mobilization triggered by the public killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody were also fueled by the disproportionate impact on communities of color and poor people of both the coronavirus and the subsequent seizing up of the economy.
Even though it’s not front of mind for most Americans at the moment, 2020 remains an election year, and these intertwined crises will affect voters’ rationales about whether to vote, and for whom.
It’s no news that a wealth of data illustrate the racial disparities in numerous economic measures including unemployment and earnings. Results from University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling also show that the reported experiences of Texans of color support the idea that there are multiple dimensions to the grievances being expressed in the streets of every major city.
The economic shock precipitated by the pandemic, the efforts to contain it and the collapse of the price of oil triggered a steep decline in voters’ estimations of the national and Texas economies, as well as of their own economic fortunes. Yet even before those shockwaves, the data revealed that the decade-long economic expansion widely lauded by state leaders and by most voters as “the Texas Miracle” has not affected all Texans equally.
And in a presidential election year in which more Texas congressional and legislative races appear competitive, the decline in Texans’ estimation of the economy will provide a key context. Republicans are attempting to return Donald Trump to the White House while also defending their statewide majorities. Democrats look to mobilize their core voters in cities and increasingly diverse suburbs: people of color, white liberals and young voters who, given the state’s demographics, are increasingly likely to be Latino — in short, a thumbnail sketch of the majority of protesters taking to the streets in Texas.
The April 2020 UT/TT Poll showed the impact on public opinion of what sometimes is called, in the artless language of the academy, an “exogenous shock” — an outside event that disrupts a previously stable pattern. Between February and April, the share of Texans who felt that the national economy was better compared to a year ago declined by 27 percentage points, from 48% to 21%, while the share who rated the economy worse off increased by 40 points, from 24% to 64%. Assessments of the Texas economy took a similar hit, with the share saying the state’s economy is worse skyrocketing from only 15% in February to 54% in April.
But signals of struggle and dissatisfaction among black and Latino Texans vibrated below the static surface of broadly positive economic assessments even prior to the pandemic.
Asked about their family’s personal economic situation compared to a year ago, white, black, and Hispanic voters’ views of their household economics looked remarkably similar to each other in April polling: only 29% of white, 30% of black, and 24% of Hispanic voters said that they’re currently doing better than they were a year ago. Given the recent upheaval to the economy, we should expect people to temper their assessments of their own economic situation. The April results, compared to February’s polling, marked a 16-point decline in the positive economic evaluations by white voters, and a 10-point decline for Hispanic voters. But among black voters, positive perceptions remained unchanged. This historic economic crisis has only (so far) lowered white Texans’ positive views of their own economic situation to levels black Texans were experiencing before either the pandemic or its economic fallout.
On the flipside, perceptions that personal economic situations are worse than a year ago illustrate a worsening of black and Latino economic conditions even though white voters, as a group, had farther to fall.
The share of white voters reporting they were worse off than a year ago jumped from 16% in February to 43% in April. But the share of black and Latino voters who were worse off also increased significantly — from 20% to 35% among both groups. While those shares may appear smaller, it’s important to remember that if things weren’t going very well for someone last year, their economic evaluations may remain unchanged, in spite of the downturn.
Over the nine UT/TT surveys conducted between February 2017 and October 2019, the share of white voters who said that they were better off compared to one year ago averaged 38%, compared to 29% for Hispanic voters, and 31% for black voters. The average share saying they were worse off among white voters was 17%, compared to 23% of black voters and 24% of Hispanic voters. So the relative erosion in white voters’ perceptions of improvement in their positions shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a leveling — black and Latino voters’ perceptions of their positions worsened or at best held steady.
Even with recent signs of unemployment abating from cataclysmic to merely terrible, we should expect the concrete reality that shapes these perceptions to get worse for people of color. Official data compiled by the federal government finds the Texas unemployment rate at 12.8%, and reports that about 2.3 million Texans have filed unemployment insurance claims. In mid-April, with the economic shutdown implemented to fight the virus still in its early stages, among the 44% of Texas voters who said in the UT/TT Poll that their work situation had changed due to the coronavirus, 43% of black and 51% of Hispanic voters said they had lost their jobs, compared to only 28% of white voters.
While public attention is rightly focused on the protests still taking place across the state and country, the intertwined racial and economic inequities laid bare by the pandemic shock, in concert with yet another reckoning with police brutality, will inevitably reverberate through the 2020 elections.
It’s evident that even if many voters are not focused on the election, those whose jobs depend on it are certainly paying attention. Taking credit for the prosperous macro economy that has accompanied Texas’ long economic boom has been a centerpiece of Republican campaigns for the last two decades, with few hiccups for the majority party. GOP candidates’ ability to take credit for economic prosperity has contributed to remarkably consistent electoral success amidst a relatively steady trend of positive public ratings of the state economy and the trajectory of Texans’ personal economic fortunes.
The crises of 2020 have put an end to all that.
There is now no credit to claim and much blame to place. The elected officials who have owned the policy environment for the last 20 years offer careful condolences and invocations of reason in the name of order as their answer to not only the legacy of racism, but to its evidence in the here and now.
For many Texans who shared unequally in the boom years and are now suffering even more as the viral bust sets in, the miracle was always a myth — and, like so many of its ancient predecessors, a harsh one.
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