African Americans Prospered During Reagan Presidency

By James Agresti Published on March 21, 2015

(This analysis is co-authored by Alec Weisman.)

The Washington Post recently published two opinion pieces in which the authors claimed that the economic policies of President Ronald Reagan — called Reaganomics — wreaked financial havoc on African Americans. To the contrary, the incomes of black households and families broadly rose during the Reagan administration, while in contrast, they have generally fallen during the current economic recovery.

In a March 1st column, Courtland Milloy showered praise on a playwright named August Wilson while wondering aloud if “there was a way for black boys in our public schools to benefit from Wilson’s potentially life-changing insights.” Milloy then proposed creating a school for “boys of color” in which Wilson’s works would help the boys “understand the world around them.” Milloy singled out one of Wilson’s plays entitled King Hedley, which “represents the tumultuous 1980s, when Reaganomics and crack cocaine inflicted damages from which many black communities never recovered.”

Relatedly, in a March 6th op-ed, poet and former model Jewel Allison joined a growing group of women who have stepped forward to accuse Bill Cosby of raping them. Allison stated that Cosby assaulted her in the late 1980s, but she waited more than two decades to reveal this because he was “one of the African American community’s most celebrated and admired icons,” and she did not want to damage his reputation for fear that this would harm other black Americans. “In the 1980s, when The Cosby Show aired,” she explained, “African Americans were suffering more than most from the combined scourge of Reaganomics, AIDS and the crack epidemic.”

Despite the very real harm caused by the transmission of HIV and use of crack cocaine, the claim that black Americans financially regressed during the presidency of Ronald Reagan is at odds with reality. Like President Obama, Reagan entered office under the specter of a major recession. That one ended early in Reagan’s 8-year tenure (1981-1989). In the ensuing recovery, which began in 1982 and lasted through Reagan’s second term, the Census Bureau records that the inflation-adjusted median cash income of black households rose by 12% or $3306.

For comparison, during the four years of available data on the most recent economic recovery (2010-2013), the median income of black households fell by 2.2% or $793:

Black Median income chart

Of course, these facts don’t prove that the economic policies of Reagan were better for black people than were those of Obama, because it’s impossible to separate the impacts of a president’s policies from the many other factors that affect the incomes of individual Americans. Also, the Census Bureau’s measure of income is incomplete because it excludes the value of noncash income, such as employee fringe benefits, food stamps and Medicare.

Nevertheless, the common claim that black Americans  suffered economically during Reagan’s presidency is belied by the data above and other Census data showing that every income quintile of black families experienced real cash income growth in this era. Again, for comparison, the increase for each of these quintiles was significantly higher than in the current recovery:

 Black income growth chart

In his column, Milloy described Wilson’s King Hedley II as depicting “a black man’s furious struggle for respect as well as his desperate quest for the means to care for the ones he loves.” Milloy also wrote that misunderstandings can have “fatal” consequences — yet he propagated a misunderstanding that could drive African Americans and other Americans to oppose economic policies that may help us care for the ones we love. Allison suffered under the same misunderstanding, which she says played a role in deciding to not report a rape.

These poignant examples highlight the potential harm that can flow from misinformation. Black Americans broadly prospered during Reagan’s presidency, and claims to the contrary, like many falsehoods in the realm of public policy, can inflict tangible damage on individuals and society.


James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a nonprofit institute dedicated to researching and publishing verifiable facts about public policy. This analysis is co-authored by Alec Weisman.

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