During the second daily news briefing of 2019 on Monday, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, was asked how the administration rationalized adding trillions of dollars to the national debt despite President Trump’s repeated campaign-trail insistence that the debt would drop.
“He also came into office and had an economic recovery that was needed to put people back to work, get the economy going and to rebuild the military, and had historic levels of military at $700 billion and $716 billion in — in national defense dollars,” Vought said. He didn’t mention that the debt has also been driven higher by a decline in corporate tax revenue after the 2017 Republican tax bill or that Trump had repeatedly railed against the debt added under former president Barack Obama when Obama also aimed to get Americans back to work.
Or, for that matter, that much of the debt added under Obama came when employment was actually suffering in the United States. Trump actually added debt at a faster rate during his first two years in office than Obama did in his last two. When Obama took office, the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent, in the middle of a climb that would eventually peak at 10 percent. The peak unemployment Trump has seen has been 4.7 percent — where it was when he took over.
This rhetoric overlaps with a claim that Trump made on Twitter over the weekend.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report on February employment, the figure is actually just under 157 million, when adjusted for the seasonal ups and downs the economy sees. The actual all-time high came in November, when the non-adjusted number of employees was about 157 million, about a million more than were working in February.
It’s not as though the job numbers under Trump suddenly became exceptional. He was inaugurated in January 2017, indicated on the chart below by a vertical line. The trend since mid-2011 has been pretty consistent, continuing into Trump’s presidency.
There’s another factor worth mentioning here: population.
When Trump has in the past crowed about the record number of Americans working, we’ve pointed out that there are also a record number of Americans. As the population has increased, the number of people working has increased. From July 2016 to July 2018, the country added about 4 million people 18 or older and 4.7 million jobs. From July 2014 to July 2016, the country added 4.7 million adults and 5.4 million jobs. The ratio of new jobs to new people from 2014 to 2016 was 1.16. The ratio from July 2016 to July 2018 was 1.16.
But there’s another component to Trump’s bragging about new jobs that bears mentioning: More than a third of those new jobs went to immigrants.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t release seasonally adjusted data on foreign-born employment every month, but it does release an annual summary. The most recent, published in May, found that about 17 percent of people working in the United States were born outside the country, a bit over 1 in 6. The unemployment rate among immigrants, in fact, is lower than that of native-born Americans.
Month-by-month non-adjusted data shows what that looks like.
On that scale, the increase is hard to pick out. If we look at employment among the foreign-born on a monthly basis, we can see how that group makes up an increasing percentage of the pool of employed people.
In 2017, 66 percent of the foreign-born who were able to work were employed, compared with 62.2 percent of native-born Americans. Native-born Americans earned more, though, in part because of the types of jobs the foreign-born are more likely to hold.
Federal Reserve employment data indicates that from January 2017 to February 2019, the number of people employed in the United States increased by 5.7 million. The number of foreign-born individuals working increased by 2.1 million — about 37 percent of the total.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Census Bureau data released in December shows that in nine states, the sole reason population increased from 2010 to 2018 was because of immigration.
In every other state, international migration trends meant more new arrivals than departures.
The White House argument that an increase in the debt was needed to “put people back to work” is an intentional effort to mask the existing trend in getting people back to work. Trump’s triumphant declaration of how many people were working has much the same effect. Just as political, though, are the two asterisks that don’t accompany that declaration: that part of the increase stems from the growing population and that the growing population stems in part from more immigration.