The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s embrace of African American employment data he once scorned

The president used data he once critiqued to claim success in lowering African-American youth unemployment. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Look at how much African American communities are suffering from Democratic control. … Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed, what the hell do you have to lose?”
— GOP candidate Donald Trump, rally in Dimondale, Mich., Aug. 19, 2016

“I said, vote for me, what the hell have you got to lose, remember that? The Hispanic, the African American, the inner cities. So now it just came out, African Americans and teenagers are now enjoying their lowest unemployment since just after the turn of the millennium. That’s pretty good, right?”
— President Trump, campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio, July 25, 2017

We’ve dubbed President Trump the “king of flip-floppers” because of his tendency to repeatedly change his position without acknowledging that it’s the complete opposite of a previously held position. We recognize that politicians sometimes make a sincere evolution on a policy stance, especially as new facts emerge or as the constituency that elected them to office forms a new opinion on an issue. But it’s important to acknowledge that this is a shift — which Trump never does.

Sometimes the shift is so striking that one wonders if the change in position is less tactical than cynical. Case in point: African American unemployment.

The Facts

During the campaign, The Fact Checker had long discussions with the Trump campaign about the candidate’s use of a very striking statistic — that 58 percent of African-American youth was unemployed. The official Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rate for black youth at the time was 19.2 percent — about one-third of the rate used by Trump.

How did Trump get his figure? He was counting students who are not looking for work as a part of the “unemployed” population. Technically, those students don’t have jobs. But that does not fit the definition of “unemployed” and is especially problematic for this age group, because the number of people who aren’t looking for jobs includes people who are in school full time.

For instance, Trump was counting as “unemployed” 16-year-old high school sophomores, who were going to school full time and engaged in extracurricular activities when not in school — and who were not looking for jobs. The methodology — counting people as unemployed when they were not looking for jobs — just seemed absurd.

Under Trump’s fuzzy campaign math, 49 percent of white youth were “unemployed” — and so were nearly 64 percent of Asian youth.

The Trump campaign was very defensive about the figure, insisting it was much more accurate than the official unemployment rate. We, however, ended up giving Four Pinocchios for the claim.

Now that he’s president, Trump appears all too happy to cite the unemployment rate for African Americans, bragging that it’s the best since the turn of the century. The rate in June was 7.1 percent, the lowest since it hit 7 percent in April 2000 under President Bill Clinton, according to BLS.

We’re pleased the president is now using accurate statistics but it’s absurd to suggest, as he did to the audience in Youngstown, that he had anything to do with these numbers. There’s only employment data for the first five months of his presidency — and the chart below demonstrates that the African American unemployment rate has been on a relatively steady decline since it hit a peak of 16.8 percent in March, 2010, during the Great Recession. The rate had already fallen to 7.7 percent when Trump took the oath of office, so Trump taking credit for this is like a rooster thinking the sun came up because he crowed.

A White House official did not explain why the president has shifted his methodology, except to note that his statement in Youngstown was accurate.

The Pinocchio Test

We’d be more inclined to accept that Trump was just engaging in campaign rhetoric, if not for his campaign’s insistence at the time that simply using unemployment figures did not tell the whole story. It’s all too convenient for Trump to embrace accurate statistics when they look good for him. For such a cynical flip-flop, we wish we could award the president a Super Upside-Down Pinocchio.

Upside-Down Pinocchio

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Flip- Flop
"Now it just came out, African Americans and teenagers are now enjoying their lowest unemployment since just after the turn of the millennium. That’s pretty good, right?”
in a speech in Youngstown, Ohio
Tuesday, July 25, 2017