Over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump looked for ways to suggest that the economy was in turmoil. While the picture for every American wasn’t rosy, the country was in much better shape than it had been a few years earlier at the tail end of the Great Recession. So as a candidate Trump cobbled together several unorthodox measures that he’d discuss at campaign stops and in interviews to suggest that things weren’t as great as they looked.
On Friday morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released jobs numbers from Trump’s first full month in office. The addition of 235,000 people to the employment rolls was good news, but it wasn’t exceptional, compared with other recent jobs reports. But who cares, right? Those aren’t the important metrics, according to Trump (though he did retweet an enthusiastic Drudge Report story about that number for some reason). By his own measures, Trump’s first month wasn’t a runaway success.
The real unemployment rate
After he won the New Hampshire primary last February, Trump discussed the unemployment rate.
“Don’t believe those phony numbers 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.”
So we will not believe the “phony” 4.7 percent rate the BLS announced Friday. Instead, let’s look at the numbers Trump would prefer.
Mind you, it’s not clear — and has never been clear — what that 28 percent is. There is an official figure from the BLS which is a bit larger than the 4.7 percent rate that’s commonly referred to. Called the U-6 rate, it includes part-time employment and those who aren’t looking for work but who have looked in the past year. It’s at 9.2 percent right now — down from January, but the same as it was in December.
Not a huge change.
But that’s far lower than what Trump claimed. He speculated that the figure was as high as 42 percent. Neil Irwin of the New York Times determined that Trump was probably talking about the number of Americans who were working as a function of the total population. If that’s what he was doing, the figure dropped slightly in February, down to 40 percent from 40.1 percent.
There’s a reason that the government doesn’t usually talk about 40 percent unemployment. It focuses on people who are looking for work, not including people like retirees or high school students. Saying the real unemployment rate is 40 percent certainly has the desired rhetorical effect of making unemployment look like a bigger problem than it is, but it also means that Trump, sadly, hasn’t yet found full-time employment for many of those retirees and college freshmen.
The size of the labor force
As recently as his joint speech to Congress, Trump lamented how many people were not among those included in jobs figures. “Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force,” he said, part of a quick litany of numbers he was using to suggest that all was not well in the U.S. economy.
At a rally in New Hampshire in November, he looked at this figure another way.
“The terrible jobs report that just came out shows the number of people not in the workforce increased by another 425,000 people last month.”
How does that metric look now?
There are about 94.2 million people who are not in the labor force. Many of them aren’t looking for work, like that “real” unemployment percent. A lot of retirees and people on disability, for example. But if this is how Trump wants to judge things, fine. There was a slight decline from January to February, of 0.2 percent. That decline amounted to about 176,000 people — much better, on this metric, than the plus-425,000 figure from last October.
Labor force participation rate
A corollary to the number of people not in the labor force is the labor force participation rate. Trump once criticized President Barack Obama’s jobs numbers based on the labor force participation rate dropping so much. With a smaller labor force, more employed people make up a large percentage of that group, and the unemployment rate drops.
If @BarackObama had to use the same labor participation he had when he entered office then the unemployment number would be 11.2%
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2012
If Trump were subject to the same adjustment back to the start of Obama’s term — 65.7 percent participation rate vs. 63 percent now — the current unemployment figure would be 8.7 percent.
Black youth employment
When he was making his sales pitch to black voters, Trump would regularly tout an extremely iffy number on black youth unemployment.
During an infamous speech in Michigan, Trump described the state of black life in the United States in bleak terms.
“You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed, what the hell do you have to lose?”
To get this figure, Trump pulled a similar trick as his 40 percent unemployment above, looking at how many young black people there are overall and pegging unemployment numbers to that figure. So this again includes a lot of young people who are in school, for example.
But this is the metric we have. Trump was using an annual employment-population ratio figure for his calculation. The monthly number we have access to only breaks out those aged 16 to 19, but that can give us about as good a sense of things. So:
A big dip in the percentage of all black teens who are not currently working. The BLS figures we used go back to October, and we’ll note that in February 2016, this figure would have been 77.9, only a bit higher than the current 77.3. But who’s interested in such nuances?
In short: Not much change so far for Trump along his preferred economic metrics. Anyone preparing to run against him in 2020 can simply point to the “real unemployment rate” of 40 percent and those 94 million people out of work as evidence that Trump is not being successful. If your response is that the numbers are falling and they could drop further by the next election, I would suggest that perhaps you’re missing the point.
Update: The Trump White House would now like you to know that the real numbers are indeed real.