The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A popular conspiracy theory is spreading in the Trump family. It’s totally false.

Donald Trump listens to the applause of the crowd at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The unemployment rate is not a conspiracy. It is not manipulated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And anyone who suggests otherwise is either uninformed, or trying to misinform others.

Which is to say that you shouldn't listen to Donald Trump & Co. For a year now, the alleged billionaire has insisted that the "real" unemployment rate is something like 42 percent instead of the 4.9 percent it actually is. He hasn't said how he's gotten this — maybe it's from the same "extremely credible source" who told him President Obama's birth certificate was fake? — but the simplest explanation is that he's just ballparking how many adults don't work. That's 40.4 percent right now. The problem with using that number, though, is that it counts college students and stay-at-home parents and retirees as being equally "unemployed" as people who are actively looking for work but can't find any. So it doesn't tell us too much, at least not on its own, unless you think it's a problem that we have more 70-year-olds than we used to.

Or unless conspiracy theories are one of your favorite accessories, as seems to be the case with the father, and now the son, Donald Trump Jr. On Sunday, he told CNN's Jake Tapper that the official unemployment numbers are "artificial" ones that are "massaged to make the existing economy look good" and "this administration look good." How do they supposedly do this? By, he claimed, defining "the way we actually measure unemployment" to be that "after x number of months, if someone can't find a job, congratulations, they're miraculously off" the jobless rolls. The only problem with this theory is it's false. The BLS hasn't changed the way it measures unemployment during the Obama years, and there is zero evidence it has changed the numbers themselves. Not only that, but Donald Trump Jr. doesn't even seem to know how unemployment is defined in the first place. As the BLS explains, everyone who doesn't have a job but is trying to find one counts as "unemployed." It doesn't matter how long you've been looking as long as you are, in fact, still looking.

But that's not to say the unemployment rate tells us everything we need to know about the labor market. It doesn't. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will tell you that herself. There are still a lot of people who want full-time but can only find part-time jobs. Still a lot of people who want to work but weren't able to find anything for so long that they've given up looking for now. And still a lot of people who would want to work again if wages were high enough to make it worth their while. But none of this is a secret. The BLS publishes all this, too. So-called broad unemployment includes all these people who technically aren't unemployed but aren't fully employed, either. That's 9.6 percent today.

Even more damning than that, though, are the millions of people who "should" be working but aren't. Those are the 25- to 54-year-olds who, for the most part, are too old to still be in school, but too young to be retired. In 2000, 81.9 percent of them worked; in 2007, 80.3 percent did; but only 77.8 percent do today. That adds up to at least 2.5 million missing workers.

Where have they gone? Well, some of them are probably people who decided to go back to school. Others are probably parents who felt like they had to stay at home since their wages wouldn't have covered the ever-increasing costs of child care. And the rest are probably people who are still waiting for the recovery to reach them. Indeed, as you can see above, the share of 25- to 54-year-olds who have a job has only made up half of the ground it lost during the recession.

The boring truth is that the economy is in a lot better shape than it was when Obama took office, but that it could be in better shape still. The recovery, in other words, still has a ways to go. But that's a lot different from saying that we have 40 percent unemployment and that the government is trying to cover it up. That just suggests you don't understand — or don't want to accurately describe — how stats work and you don't know how to look up the ones you think the BLS is hiding.

It's not what you'd expect from a major party presidential candidate.

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at Trump Doral golf course in Miami, Florida, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
America's monthly jobs report can be hard to understand. Here's what you need to know about non-farm payroll employment and the unemployment rate—with gummy bears to help explain. (Video: Kate M. Tobey, Gillian Brockell, Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)