“When they declare victory at 4 percent unemployment, it is not good enough. Because 4 percent unemployment means an 8 or 9 percent unemployment in some cities for black women. It means a 16 percent unemployment rate for black men. It means young veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, a 20 percent unemployment rate. So our work really isn’t done.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), remarks at the National Action Network Conference, Nov. 14, 2018

For 2020 presidential hopefuls, the lowest unemployment rate in nearly 50 years is a challenge. So prospective candidates have acknowledged it but argued that it is still not good enough.

Readers may recall that in October, we noted that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was traveling around Iowa with a line in stump speech that suggested the unemployment rate was so low because people were working two or three jobs. Her staff said she was not asserting a fact, simply raising something she had heard anecdotally. But the day the fact check ran, the line was suddenly gone from her speech.

Now, another prospective 2020 candidate is taking a different tack. Speaking before the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Gillibrand decided to focus on the fact that, for some people – African American men, women and young veterans, specifically – the unemployment rates are still high.

But her numbers seemed off. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

The overall unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in October, the lowest since December 1969. Here are the claims Gillibrand made:

  • 8 or 9 percent unemployment in some cities for black women
  • 16 percent unemployment rate for black men
  • 20 percent unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in October, the unemployment rate was 6.2 percent for African American men and 4.9 percent for African American women.

Gillibrand spokesman Alex Phillips said the senator accidentally dropped a word – “young” – from her prepared remarks and meant to say “young black men” and “young black women.”

Using detailed, but not seasonally adjusted, BLS data for October, one can calculate that the unemployment rate for African American men and women ages 18 to 24 was 16.4 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively. Those are, indeed, the numbers used by Gillibrand. She just failed to use the word “young.” The BLS breaks out the numbers as 18 to 19 years old and 20 to 24 years old, but the raw numbers are presented, so a calculation combining those two categories is possible.

(During the 2016 campaign, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used to falsely claim the unemployment rate for black youths was 58 percent. His staff came up with that statistic by including not only people seeking work, but everyone who was not in the labor force at the time, such as students. He also included 16- and 17-year-olds, who are mostly students. That statistic was wildly off base and earned Four Pinocchios.)

Unemployment figures for African Americans are even higher than the national average in some cities, such as in Buffalo and Erie, N.Y.

As for “young veterans,” BLS data that is not seasonally adjusted shows that for “Gulf War-era II veterans” ages 18 to 24, the unemployment rate in October was 12.6 percent. (Seasonally adjusted data is only available for all Gulf War II veterans, showing a rate of 2.7 percent.)

Here again, Gillibrand got it wrong. Phillips said Gillibrand used 20 percent because “she misspoke the stat off the cuff,” but “her point remains unchanged” that the numbers are unusually high for young veterans. She noted that as recently as March, it was 16.4 percent for veterans 18 to 24 years old.

The Pinocchio Test

Regular readers know that we generally do not award Pinocchios when a politician admits error. We certainly can understand a slip of the tongue, but it is never a clever idea to try to ad-lib a statistic.

Somehow, Gillibrand managed to mangle three statistics in three consecutive sentences before a large audience. If you are trying to make the case that you can provide better economic stewardship, you need to get the numbers right first.

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“When they declare victory at 4 percent unemployment, it is not good enough. Because 4 percent unemployment means an 8 or 9 percent unemployment in some cities for black women. It means a 16 percent unemployment rate for black men. It means young veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, a 20 percent unemployment rate."
in a speech at the National Action Network Conference,
Wednesday, November 14, 2018