In August, Trump made the same statement to Time magazine. “I saw a chart the other day, our real unemployment — because you have ninety million people that aren’t working. Ninety-three million to be exact," he said.
Whatever chart that was, Trump was reading it wrong. And he’s been called on his error repeatedly. My colleague Glenn Kessler wrote a thorough takedown at the time, pointing out that Trump was lumping together retirees, students, stay-at-home moms, and all kinds of people who aren’t figured into the unemployment rate because they aren’t available to work.
It doesn’t seem that Trump was paying attention, so we’re going to try again — with charts.
The unemployment rate last year was, on average, 6.2 percent, which reflects about 9.6 million unemployed out of 156 million in the civilian labor force (people ready and able to work, or actively looking). To be officially unemployed in America, you have to have looked for work within the past month.
Now, there are people who have stopped looking for work because they're too discouraged by the crappy economy. But most people who aren't seeking employment are busy doing other things: learning to walk, going to school, staying at home to take care of children, taking a breather from work, retiring to the good life.
This chart breaks it down:
Trump may have seen that 92 million figure on a chart somewhere. And it’s true that these people aren’t looking for work. But that’s not because they can't find work they want. As noted above, most of them have a pretty good reason not to work.
Of those 92 million people over 16 who weren't looking for work in 2014, 86 million (93 percent) did not want a job right then, according to government surveys.
Here are a few more details on how that group of Americans breaks down:
Without identifying any one in particular, Trump said Monday that “some great economists” have put the real unemployment rate at “30 percent, 32 percent.” He then said the number might even be 42 percent, saying that's "the highest I've heard."
The only way to get to a 42 percent unemployment rate would be to count everyone's grandmas and stay-at-home spouses as unemployed. To take this kind of thinking to its logical extreme, consider that only 146 million of America's 319 million were employed in 2014. More than half of Americans did not have jobs (in part because they were teething). Maybe the real real unemployment rate should be 54 percent?
Of course not.
But Trump is correct in his suspicion that the official unemployment number doesn't tell the whole story. Of the 92 million Americans who didn't have jobs in 2014, 6 million wanted a job but hadn't been looking recently. They weren't counted in the unemployment rate, since, well, they weren't looking. The reasons varied: Some went back to school or became occupied with family matters. Some simply gave up on finding a job.
That last category — discouraged workers — may be what Trump was referring in his speech Monday. He said, “When people look and look and look and then they give up looking for a job, they're taken off the rolls.”
The scale of the discouraged-worker problem, though, is much smaller than Trump appears to believe.
In August, the government estimates that there were only about 624,000 discouraged workers — far from 92 million. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an alternative unemployment rate that includes discouraged workers. That number was 5.5 percent in August, compared with the official unemployment rate, which was 5.1.
There’s another, broader measure of unemployment that throws in the “marginally attached” — anyone who looked for a job in the past year, but not within the past four weeks. There were about 1.8 million of those in August. Adding them to the mix bumps up the unemployment rate to 6.2 percent. Finally, the most expansive way the government measures unemployment also figures in part-time workers who can’t find full-time employment. There were 6.3 million of those in August, and they bring the rate up to 10.3 percent.
All of these numbers present a useful way of thinking about those who want to work in America.
The number 42 percent? That’s not the answer to anything.