Unemployment Numbers Aren't as High as Republicans Say They Are

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its unemployment figures for November on Friday morning, and the numbers are good: The national unemployment rate is at 4.6 percent, the lowest since 2007, with 178,000 people finding jobs last month. Though wages aren’t climbing as fast as we might like, they’re 2.5 percent above what they were a year ago (2.8 percent was the unmet projection). In all, the employment picture is positive, if not exactly great.

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“It’s hard to imagine a more stark contrast between the economy that we are handing over to the one that we inherited,” Christopher Lu, deputy secretary of the Labor Department, said to The New York Times, referencing the Great Recession, which greeted Barack Obama when he took office in 2009.

The right-wing media machine, reveling in our supposedly post-truth environment, has a drastically different take, telling Americans that the unemployment rate is much, much higher than what the federal government says it is.

“95 Million Not in the Work Force,” says a headline on Breitbart. “Obama Legacy: Record 95 Million Out of Labor Force,” says LifeZette.

Right-wing users of Twitter have been quick to repeat this number:

Just one problem: It’s totally untrue.

Now, Obama’s opponents have long accused him, without any evidence, of deflating the jobless rate by concealing the number of people who’ve simply dropped out of the workforce, among other statistical tricks. Back in 2012, for example, Jack Welch, the former General Electric chief, accused “those Chicago guys” (Obama’s closest aides, presumably) of cooking the unemployment numbers.

That was irresponsible, but Welch is an individual, not a media organization. What’s happening today, with the rise of right-wing propaganda sites like Breitbart and Newsmax, is a misinformation campaign that seeks to delegitimize not only Obama but the very notion of fact itself.

Because, look, there’s no debate about this: The 95 million figure is outlandish, and you don’t need a Nobel Prize in macroeconomics to grasp as much. Very simply, many of those people are not in the labor force because they don’t belong in the labor force, largely due to reasons of age.

PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking service, explained this pesky point when scurrilous Texas Senator Ted Cruz—who would say the Earth is flat if he thought it would bring him closer to the White House—claimed that 92 million Americans were out of work in February 2015. PolitiFact rated this claim “mostly false,” explaining that many Americans don’t work because they are either too young or too old to do so:

Of the 101.7 million people who are not employed, 37.5 million are age 65 and over—an age when Medicare kicks in and many Americans head into retirement. Another 11.9 million are between 16 and 19, meaning they’re either high school age or starting college. And another 8 million are ages 20 to 24, when many are in college or graduate school.

In other words, Obama is lying only if you think your 78-year-old granny should be driving a forklift. PolitiFact notes that some of these out-of-the-labor-force individuals are students, and one could make the case that students should be working. But that’s a nuanced argument Obama’s enemies are uninterested in making.

"I find that whole discussion dangerous," says Henry Farber, a labor economics expert at Princeton. Farber told me that "the BLS does the best job possible" in figuring out how many people are looking for work but are unable to find it. Any suggestion that federal statisticians are skewing numbers in favor of the Obama administration are preposterous, according to Farber. "It's not very sensible to say there's 95 million unemployed people," he told me.

Yet people are saying it, purposefully conflating the unemployment rate with the labor participation rate. For example, The Washington Free Beacon declared this morning that the “labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of the population that has a job or actively looked for one in the past month, declined from 62.8 percent in October to 62.7 percent in November.”

That seems like a shockingly low number, suggesting that our unemployment rate is actually 37.3 percent. Of course, The Washington Free Beacon—a right-wing outlet—makes no mention of the fact that this accounts for both students and retirees. For context, the participation rate in January 1987, during the golden Reagan years, was 65.4. It is a little lower today because our population is aging—something that Obama can’t quite be blamed for. 

Screen Shot 2016-12-02 at 10 Workforce participation during the Reagan years. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Donald Trump hasn’t yet said anything about the latest job numbers, but in the summer of 2015 he told Sarah Palin that 93 million American were out of work. Lacking an apparent grasp of basic economics, among many other topics, Trump told Palin that we “have 93 million people out of work. They look for jobs, they give up, and all of a sudden, statistically, they're considered employed.”

PolitiFact rated that statement as flat-out false, but the right-wing propaganda machine is unlikely to be deterred by something as dull as statistics or facts, not after having been emboldened by last month’s presidential-election victory.

That’s not to gloss over real issues with the employment scenario. Some people have indeed stopped looking for work. Others are working part-time or in low-skilled, water-treading jobs. Of course, we can’t debate how to help these people if a good portion of the political-media class insists on simply obfuscating truth in order to stick it to Obama and the Democrats.

Explained a Trump surrogate on CNN earlier this week, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”

And so, 95 million is the story.

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