Why Trump's and the government's unemployment figures differ dramatically
Posted September 25, 2016
This election season, Donald Trump has repeatedly emphasized what he sees as an American unemployment crisis, speaking up in defense of what he has called “a silent nation of jobless Americans.” But his data on unemployment doesn’t match the official figures published by the United States Department of Labor.
According to the Labor Department, which publishes an updated unemployment rate each month, American unemployment has ranged from 4.7 percent to 5 percent in 2016.
Yet, Trump insists that American unemployment is actually much higher.
In his February victory speech after the New Hampshire primary, Trump told voters that “when you hear 4.9 and 5 percent unemployment, the number’s probably 28, 29, as high as 35 — in fact, I even heard recently 42 percent.”
And in a June interview with Fox News, Trump argued that “the [unemployment] number 5 percent is a phony number — it’s really 20 percent, close to 20 percent unemployment. That’s just a phony number to make the politicians look good.”
Why the large discrepancy? Several news outlets have tried to explain Trump's calculations and explore their implications. The GOP nominee, in his speeches or on his website, doesn't explain why he considers government labor figures "one of the biggest hoaxes in modern politics," as he labeled them in his Aug. 8 speech in Detroit.
The New Yorker explained that Trump's disagreement with the Labor Department's reports stems, at least in part, from his issue with the way the department defines unemployment.
The New Yorker reported that as of 1994, "people can only be classified as unemployed if, in their search for work, they have taken some sort of action in the previous four weeks." It is the exclusivity of this definition, the magazine speculates, that Trump likely takes issue with.
But it also noted that even by the government's most expansive measure of employment — a separately reported figure known as U6, which includes unemployed workers no longer seeking jobs and even part-time employees seeking full-time employment — the number only amounts to 9.7 percent, much lower than any of Trump's estimates.
Time magazine explained that one could technically conclude the unemployment rate was as high as 42 percent, but that would require including "teenagers, retirees, or stay-at-home caregivers" in that figure. Therefore, according to Trump's logic, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, an 85-year-old retired grandmother and a stay-at-home mom not seeking outside employment would all be considered unemployed.
The Washington Post further suggested that Trump's conclusions on American unemployment obscure the true state of the United States' labor force. The newspaper explained that applying Trump's "fuzzy math" to white, black and Asian American youths yields 48.7, 48.5 and 63.6 percent unemployment rates respectively. Yet the Department of Labor has reported the white and Asian American youth unemployment rates to be about 10 and 9.6 percent, while the unemployment rate for black American youths is nearly double those figures at 19.2 percent.
Moreover, Time magazine argued that by focusing on a fictional unemployment rate, Trump misses the opportunity to connect with voters on the real and immediate concerns working class Americans do currently experience.
"Many in Trump's base are legitimately frustrated with the current economy: wages are growing painfully slowly; service jobs are less lucrative than the union-backed factory and mining jobs of a generation ago; and health care, child care and education are vastly more costly today, as a percentage of income, than they were three decades ago." But unfortunately, Trump's repeated emphasis on the unemployment rate seems to eclipse these larger issues.
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