Editor’s Note: C. Nicole Mason, a visiting scholar at the Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership and a professorial lecturer at Georgetown University, is the author of “Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America.” She has written extensively on community development, poverty, and economic security. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
White working-class voters pulled the lever for President Donald Trump in 2016, in part because they believed he understood the plight of working Americans.
Gains in the stock market and the robust economy obscure the reality that many of the most marginalized workers, those with limited skills and education, are still struggling. Under Trump, the wealthy are doing extremely well, while the middle-class is hanging on.
On Friday, more than 800,000 federal workers across the country will go without a paycheck if the government fails to reopen. Trump says these workers will “make adjustments” as the shutdown could last months, even years. This, no doubt, will have a trickle-down effect on small businesses and others who rely on these workers to purchase goods and products.
The wall between Mexico and the United States, cheered by Trump’s most ardent supporters as a metaphorical and political symbol of “America First,” has lost its appeal to some as the government shutdown has dragged on. Furloughed workers and those who sympathize with them have begun to realize the wall will not feed their families, keep their lights on or make sure their mortgage is paid.
But there are other reasons American workers may be disenchanted with the President. Trump campaigned on a promise to bring back coal mining jobs. Yet, as Bloomberg reported, analysts say that Trump’s plan for the coal industry is not likely to have a large effect on its fortunes.
At campaign rallies and in interviews, Trump likes to say that he turned the West Virginia economy around by cutting energy regulations, but over the last decade, middle-class West Virginia households have seen no overall income gains from the state’s modest economic growth, and there has been no sustained surge in the state’s economy under Trump. These kinds of results will continue unless we are able to turn away from the divisive politics and rhetoric, and focus on building an economy that works for the majority of Americans – not just the few.
Working-class black and Latino Americans are also losing under Trump. In his address to the nation Tuesday night, President Trump asserted that illegal migration hurts all Americans by driving down jobs and wages, specifically impacting African-Americans and Hispanics. This is a bid to whip up support among both groups for the wall and his nativist immigration policies.
While it is true that African-Americans and Hispanics tend to be employed in lower wage jobs than white and Asian workers, and compete in the labor market with undocumented immigrants for those jobs, it cannot be ignored that some US employers and corporations often exploit immigrant labor for their gain, by paying them less, forcing them to work in deplorable conditions, or threatening to deport them if they complain.
These habits not only harm undocumented immigrants, but American middle-class workers as well by suppressing wages and making it nearly impossible to demand safer working conditions or benefits without the fear of being fired. If Trump is concerned about the well-being of these black and Hispanic American workers, he should do more than suggest a wall to address the income disparity.
Come March, if the government fails to reopen, tens of millions of Americans could lose their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, putting their families at risk of food insecurity. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2017, 42 million Americans participated in the SNAP program – and more than 44% of them were in working families. It is hard to accept that this protracted and partisan skirmish over a wall could soon bring real hardship to the lives of the most vulnerable Americans.
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In 2016, the white working class was cautiously optimistic, while others of us held our breath for the deal-maker and mega-businessman Donald Trump to work his magic to bring back jobs and revive struggling industries. It hasn’t happened.
It is time to admit there is no sensible agenda, policy or plan for the working or middle class to thrive in Trump’s America. Once we do, we’ll be better able to focus our energy on identifying a leader who prioritizes all of us.