The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How come 53 percent of Republicans think the unemployment rate has risen under Obama?

A recruiter with New Western Acquisitions meets with job-seekers during a job fair in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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At this very moment, the American economy is not in recession. It has not been since June 2009. The most recent national report on unemployment found that just 5 percent of those seeking work are unable to find it. Millions of people have gone back to work since President Obama took office in January 2009 when joblessness, on its tippy toes (i.e. rounding to the nearest whole number), could have reached 8 percent.

Neither should amount to news. None of that is a function of spin. That America, is based on the U.S. government's official statistics and the word from the designated arbiters of the nation's economic condition. It is the information on which every federal agency, official, major private business and yes, campaign, that needs or wants it, primarily relies.

Why might The Fix take the time to state the obvious and that which so many of our colleagues have covered in great detail? Well the United States, it seems, is stuck in a well of gloomy economic delusion.

On Tuesday, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a poll showing that a full 72 percent of Americans believe that the economy is in a state of recession. And that is an improvement. In 2012 — three years after the recession officially ended — 76 percent of Americans told PRRI researchers the country remained in recession. And Wednesday, Bloomberg News released a poll showing that a full 34 percent of Americans mistakenly believe the unemployment rate is now worse than it was when Obama took office, right after the economic collapse had already sucked up millions of jobs. For Republicans, that figure is 53 percent — a majority.

Look closely at the differences in opinion in the chart below. (Click to enlarge)

To be very very clear here, in January 2009, when Obama was sworn in, the nation's unemployment rate hovered at 7.6 percent. It went up. Then it went down. Today, it sits at 5 percent.

To make what we are telling you clear, we've made some charts. We're offering some additional data for context and we invite you to look at the official reports in the links above as well as here (October 2009) and here (January 2015).

For those still convinced that that current 5 percent unemployment rate can't be real, there is this: There is another, arguably better measure. This one captures the officially unemployed; those who are out of work, not looking but want work, or unable to find a full-time job. This number is what federal statisticians call the U-6. Right now it is 9.8 percent. (Click the chart below to enlarge)

So why do so many Americans believe that things are so bad? What we have here is, it seems, one of two things:

1) A situation where people's personal economic circumstances remain either so bad or so reduced from what they were in the run up to the Great Recession that they continue to view the economy through irrationally grim glasses.

2) They are hearing from both sides of the political spectrum — in the person of one Donald Trump and one Bernie Sanders — that the official data is either not to be believed and things have never, ever been worse or things just aren't as good as they seem.

And it really might be a bit of both.

It's true that many of the jobs gained during and just after the recession ended in June 2009 — and it did end — were low-paying jobs. And the many (but not all) of the industries expected to create jobs over the next few years offer low — really low — wages. See the chart below.

But by the summer of 2014, job growth across the country had begun to spread to some higher-paying industries. By the end of last year, that pattern was still in place.

[Better paying jobs stage a comeback]

With regard to those larger and long-term job-creation trends, some economists would argue that this is all the more reason why more Americans are going to have to put in the work to gain the skills and education required for higher-paying jobs. Those who can't find work now might need to do the same. Of course, that advice alone is about as true as it is heartless.

The thing is, people who can't find work or work that pays even reasonably well have, like most Americans, very likely ingested a steady diet of bromides about the value and payoff from hard work. They are understandably frustrated, afraid and, as many a political media article has told us this year, angry. They say they want someone or something new.

These Americans, whipped around by the strong winds of globalization, de-industrialization and America's own trade deals, need shelter. They need policy and practical help that will help them get the training they need. They need lawmakers at every level willing to either add to the debt or make other cuts to make those programs happen in a large and sustained way. And they need elected officials who are serious about addressing their economic woes — not simply using them to advance ever more outlandish claims, "data" and "ideas" of unreliable, potentially insane and or intentionally dishonest origin.

The limited but powerful tools available in a democracy — policy, programs and truth — don't change just because the characters on the political stage do. In the interim, Americans are going to have to be discerning about where they get their information and what they repeat.

It is quite possibly dangerous for this many Americans to be this deeply misinformed.