WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The financial hardship caused by the coronavirus outbreak could fall particularly hard on African Americans and Latinos, undoing economic gains President Donald Trump has touted in his outreach to those key voting blocs ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
With job cuts hitting U.S. states as governors and companies order offices and workplaces closed, African Americans and Latinos are particularly vulnerable because they more often have jobs that cannot be done at home.
“That will make them more severely impacted by an extended coronavirus shutdown of the economy,” said Jay Shambaugh, a White House economist during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.
Labor Department data shows that just 19.7% of African Americans and 16.2% of Hispanics said they could work at home in 2017 and 2018, compared with 29.9% of whites.
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The department’s most recent data on unemployment benefits showed a nationwide surge in new filings, with many states reporting layoffs in service industries like hotels and restaurants, according to the department’s March 19 report.
Those are industries where African Americans and Latinos make up outsized shares of employment, including hotels where the two groups make up nearly half of employees.
While African Americans and Hispanics overwhelmingly disapprove of Trump over his immigration policies and handling of race relations, the Trump campaign has increased its outreach to those groups in hopes of picking off enough votes to win potentially razor-thin contests in electoral swing states.
African Americans and Hispanics will comprise about a quarter of eligible voters in November, slightly more than in the 2016 election, according to the Pew Research Center. Their votes could be key in battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida that helped propel the Republican Trump to victory in 2016.
But the health crisis, which has now culminated in a full-blown economic crisis, has cost the campaign its No. 1 talking point - that a soaring economy and record-low unemployment rates for African Americans and Hispanics are reasons to vote for him.
Iyanna James, a 27-year-old black woman in College Park, Georgia, was laid off this week from her job at a gardening store after business slowed down because of the outbreak.
She considers herself a moderate Democrat and while disapproving of Trump’s immigration policies before the health crisis, she thought he was doing a good job on the economy.
But she believes he has not done enough to deal with the global pandemic that has upended American life.
“He should have responded more quickly,” said James, who plans to vote Democratic in November.
Trump’s approval rating has edged higher in the past week among all Americans, including African Americans and Hispanics, suggesting it is possible he will earn some credit for his handling of the crisis.
Still, only one in five African Americans and about one in three Latinos approved of the job he is doing as president, roughly the same level as when he took office, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted March 18-24.
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“Trump is going to make a different argument to those groups than he had planned to make before the coronavirus,” said Alex Conant, a White House spokesman during Republican President George W. Bush’s administration.
“Instead of pointing to record unemployment, he’ll have to point to his handling of the coronavirus and what he’s doing to specifically help those groups recover.”
After initially downplaying the outbreak, Trump has taken more forceful action in recent days, issuing guidance that Americans avoid large gatherings and holding regular briefings on the crisis.
The Trump campaign said the president could make the case to black and Latino voters that he is the right leader for the current crisis.
“The President is uniting Americans through his leadership and voters are responding, Blacks and Latinos included,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in an email.
Juliette Valentino, 29, a Hispanic woman in San Antonio who was once a Democrat but now considers herself a moderate Republican, does not blame Trump for the crisis even though she and her husband were laid off from a pet-care center because of the outbreak.
Saying she would probably vote for Trump in November, Valentino said his administration “has seemed to get a handle on this.”
Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington; Additional reporting by Chris Kahn in New York; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney