Blacks see Maryland economy worsening

Experts say pessimism arises partly from politics

The Sun Poll

April 23, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Six and a half years ago, the African-Americans in Maryland who thought the economy was improving outnumbered by 5 to 1 those who said the economy was worsening.

Today, the numbers are almost reversed, with blacks who are pessimistic outnumbering optimistic ones more than 3 to 1.

Experts say the shift in The Sun Poll of Maryland voters might have relatively little to do with the state's economic health - possibly relating more to state and national politics and whether African-Americans who tend to vote Democratic have confidence in a Republican-dominated government.

From 1998 through 2003, African-Americans in Maryland have been generally more optimistic than whites about the health of the state's economy. But for the past two years, blacks have been more likely to say the economy is getting worse, a recent Sun poll found.

The current survey, conducted April 11-13 among 1,000 likely voters in the 2006 Maryland gubernatorial election, revealed 42 percent of blacks said the economy is worsening, while 12 percent of blacks say it's getting better. The margin of error is 3.2 percent, though it is slightly larger for individual demographic groups.

There's no simple answer to explain the grim economic outlook held by Maryland's African-American population.

Theories range from disparities in educational attainment - which can result in blacks earning less, on average, than whites - to black unemployment figures, which have been consistently higher than the Maryland average.

In 2003, Maryland's average black unemployment rate was 6.7 percent, nearly twice the whites' 3.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"I guess as long as you have a job, you're doing OK, but if you don't have a job, it's not good," said Michael Small, 44, a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver from Baltimore, who added that he thinks the economy could be doing better.

But some economists suggest attitudes have more to do with politics than economic indicators such as unemployment and job growth.

"In 1998, we had a Democratic governor and a Democratic president, and today we have neither," said Anirban Basu, chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm.

"For some people, the world really shifted," he said. "I would suspect some African-Americans see they have less political influence and less economic power, too. The two are related."

Low point in 2003

Historical poll figures show thatAfrican-Americans' outlook on the Maryland economy hit a low point in January 2003, corresponding with the beginning of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term. Then, just 9 percent of African-Americans said the economy was getting better, while 41 percent said it was worsening.

African-Americans, who tend to vote Democratic, are likely less supportive of Ehrlich's economic policies, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the Sun polls.

"It's clear they are seeing Maryland's economic health as a political issue," he said. "Clearly, they were more optimistic than white voters, but then there was a marked shift in 2003, with African-Americans, which has carried through to now."

Small, who was questioned for The Sun poll, said he doesn't think Ehrlich's economic policies have helped the working and middle class.

"So far, I haven't really seen him do too much of anything except being on TV and talking about slots," said Small, who added that he is a Democrat but has voted for Republicans.

Others said they think the administration has done little to close the wealth gap between blacks and whites.

"I don't really see them reaching out to the disenfranchised," said Emanuel Smith, 52, a program analyst from Bowie. "I don't think they are very interested, frankly. That's because there's a bunch of people in Maryland who do well, but if you look among the races and socioeconomic status, you will see a big disparity."

White Marylanders were also bleak about the economy in 2003, when 10 percent said it was getting better and 33 percent said it was worsening. But whites have grown more optimistic over the past two years, poll results show.

Whites, for instance, were evenly split in this month's survey, with 23 percent saying the economy is improving and 22 percent saying it's worsening.

Some experts point to policy, rather than ideology, as the reason blacks said the economy has worsened.

Nationwide, African-Americans made significant economic gains during President Bill Clinton's second term.

"The reason why Bill Clinton was so popular among African-Americans during his second term was that [average] African-American family household income increased by $5,000," said David Bositis, senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank on black issues.

White household income increased by about $4,000 during the same period, Bositis said.

Some left behind

"There is a feeling sometimes that even when the overall economy is doing well, some people are being left behind," said Basu. "That was the predominant view of many Americans, and Marylanders too, in Clinton's first term."

But during his second term, economic recovery appeared broadly shared among all Americans, he said. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the recession, and Americans across the board trended to be pessimistic about the economy.

The national unemployment rate increased, but more sharply for blacks. In Maryland, black unemployment hit double digits in 2002 - with an annual average of 11.6 percent.

Said Bositis: "That was, of course, a big disappointment after the kinds of gains taking place under Clinton."

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