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Jobs boom favors Democratic counties over Trump strongholds; social issues motivate GOP base

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President Donald Trump has long asserted that his tax cuts and other policies would accelerate job growth, which, in turn, would serve the “forgotten” men and women who had helped propel him to the White House in the 2016 election.

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A barn with a Trump banner sits behind a field of soy beans in Ashland, Neb., July 24, 2018. An AP analysis finds that the generally strong U.S. economy has benefitted Democratic areas, often in and around cities, more than Republican strongholds. – AP Photo / Nati Harnik

Washington, D.C.-based economics reporter Josh Boak wondered: Had that actually occurred so far? And how much was job growth a motivating force for Trump supporters?

The president’s case, Boak knew, rested on national data, which can be misleading. A booming job market in such population-rich metro areas – and Democratic bastions – as New York, San Francisco, Denver, Boston and Los Angeles would likely mask the relative decline in areas of the industrial and rural Midwest and South where Trump enjoyed much support. Trump’s economic team had used state-level data to claim that they were achieving a turnaround for people who had previously been left behind. Yet that data didn’t distinguish among urban, suburban and rural areas of those states.

While advancing his knowledge of database analysis at a journalism boot camp in Missouri, Boak hit on a possible way to hold the president’s claims to a fair test. He turned to a relatively obscure report issued by the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report lists monthly hiring data for roughly 3,200 counties. Boak merged the spreadsheet containing those economic figures with the AP’s 2016 election returns, broken down by county.

Later, his methodology was refined by Larry Fenn of AP’s data news team, who knew to adjust for seasonal changes in the data by calculating an annual average of job gains or losses by county. The result, under multiple calculations, was clear: The bulk of U.S. hiring under Trump had so far occurred in Democratic counties. As such, it essentially mirrored the pattern of job growth that had prevailed under Barack Obama.

Boak merged relatively obscure government labor data with the AP’s 2016 election returns, broken down by county.

In his exclusive analysis, Boak reported that on average for the 12 months that ended in May, nearly 60 percent of U.S. job growth had occurred in counties that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. He further reported that 35 percent of Trump counties – compared with just 19 percent of Clinton counties – had actually shed jobs over that time.

Boak pinpointed one area – Beaver County, in western Pennsylvania – that had voted decisively for Trump, had lost jobs in the past 12 months and is the site of a contested House race. To deepen his reporting, Boak spent three days in Beaver County. Interviewing dozens of residents and business owners there, he reported that Republican voters appeared to be motivated more by their social stands – opposition to gun control, for example – than by the health of the economy. “Our No. 1 motivating factor,” the county Republican chairman told Boak, “is Second Amendment issues.”

As in many rural areas and small towns in America, population losses in that pocket of western Pennsylvania have left employers with too few workers to hire. A negative cycle has taken root: The area’s diminished population slows the ability of employers to hire, which weakens the area’s economic base and leads to further population loss. It’s a problem that can’t be fixed by relatively modest tax cuts for the average U.S. household.

Boak’s story generated such intense reader interest that retweets of the story’s link caused his Twitter account to freeze. At the invitation of MSNBC,Boak discussed his findings on national television. He also has a forthcoming interview set with the radio program Marketplace.

For exclusively documenting how job growth under Trump has disproportionately underserved his geographic base and for illustrating that trend in a community that reflects it, Boak earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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