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How Democrats are putting a bad spin on good economic news

Despite good economic news, prominent Democrats suggest many Americans are still working two or three jobs "to pay the bills" and "to survive." (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

When the unemployment rate is 4 percent, or even lower, it presents a challenge for the political party out of power: How do you make the case that things could be better? Or that things are really worse?

Some Democrats running for president have tried to make the case that the good economic news is simply an illusion — that people are working two or three jobs to (take your pick) “pay the bills,” “put food on the table,” and “survive.”

All of them, so far, have avoided the pitfall of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who started this line of attack last summer. Ocasio-Cortez, at the time a novice politician who had just won her primary, went way too far and earned Four Pinocchios.

The Democrats who have followed her path have more carefully crafted their lines. Here’s a guide to the rhetoric, from the worst to least-inaccurate. As this is a roundup, we’re not awarding Pinocchios. But no one would earn any Geppettos.

The Flat-out Falsehood

“Unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs. Unemployment is low because people are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and can barely feed their family.”

Ocasio-Cortez, interview on PBS’s “Firing Line,” July 13, 2018

Ocasio-Cortez got into trouble because she made a causal connection — the unemployment rate was low because everyone has two jobs.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the percentage of people working two jobs has actually declined since the Great Recession — and been relatively steady at around 5 percent since 2010. The percentage bounced around a bit but it was as low as 4.5 percent in August 2017 and was 5.0 percent in the February jobs report, the most recent available.

“After reaching a peak of 6.2 percent during 1995-96, the multiple job-holding rate began to recede,” the BLS noted in a report. “By the mid-2000s, the rate had declined to 5.2 percent and remained close to that level from 2006 to 2009. In 2010, the multiple job-holding rate decreased to 4.9 percent and has remained at 4.9 percent or 5.0 percent from 2010 to 2017.”

The Fuzzy Anecdote

“[They say] ‘the economy is great, it is doing great for everybody.’ And then you ask them, well, how is that? Well, they’ll point to the stock market. Well, that’s fine if you own stocks. Then you’ll ask them, what’s your other measure? And they’ll talk about well, the unemployment rate is down. That’s fine. Yeah, well, I’ve been traveling our country. People are working. They’re working two and three jobs to pay the bills. It’s not working for working people."

— Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), remarks at the Power Rising Summit in New Orleans, Feb. 22

We had earlier spotlighted Harris’s use of this spiel. She appeared to drop it from her stump speech the day after our fact check, but in recent weeks it has returned.

But Harris is much more careful than Ocasio-Cortez. She does not link it directly to the unemployment rate. She appears to suggest this is an anecdote. We had earlier faulted her for not stating that directly, and now she’s added a sentence to make that clearer: “Well, you know, I’ve been traveling our country.”

But the number of people who are working two or three jobs is pretty small — and getting smaller.

There are almost 156 million people with jobs. But only 251,000 people had two full-time jobs in February, compared with 343,000 in February 2018, according to BLS. That’s a decline of more than 25 percent. Another 4.5 million had both a full-time job and a part-time job, while nearly 2 million were juggling part-time jobs.

In all, there are 7.8 million people who hold more than one job.

The Fishy Data Point

“I have already shared with you that many are working second or third jobs — in fact in Texas, half of your colleagues are working a second or third job just to put food on the table.”

— former representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), in remarks in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, March 15

O’Rourke was apparently speaking to a teacher when he made this aside. His spokesman says that O’Rourke was referring to a study released by the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). In August, the union said that a survey of its members found that 39 percent of teachers expect to take extra jobs outside the classroom to meet family expenses.

But this appears to be a self-selected survey, not a random sample. “This was an online survey of Texas State Teachers Association teacher members. We have about 50,000 teacher members, and we encouraged them by email to participate in the survey,” said Clay Robison, a TSTA spokesman. Some 974 teachers participated.

In other words, these results cannot be applied to all Texas teachers; they only reflect the answers of the people who decided to answer the survey.

By contrast, the U.S. Education Department conducts a nationally representative sample survey of public K — 12 schools, principals and teachers in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The most recent survey shows that 17 percent of teachers in the South — and 18 percent across the country — supplemented their income with a job outside the school system.

That’s higher than the overall population — but much lower than “half” as stated by O’Rourke. He earns points for at least having a specific example, but it’s based on fishy data.

The Statistic Without Context

“Millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a speech in North Charleston, S.C., March 15

Sanders does not pussyfoot around and simply draws on the BLS data — which as we noted shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job.

But most of those extra jobs are part time, not full time. And as we noted, the “millions” of people amount to just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. So that means 95 percent are not working two or three jobs “just to survive.” The percentage has been roughly steady since the Great Recession, and in fact is lower than in the mid-1990s, when it hovered around 6 percent.

So Sanders certainly has the most accurate sound bite. But it’s lacking important context, making it misleading.

The Bottom Line

Each of these 2020 candidates are straining to make the economy appear worse. In doing so, they are following the example of President Trump, who in his campaign for the presidency repeatedly used to make a similar claim about people having to hold more than one job, such as saying in September 2016: “Many people, because of Obamacare and for other reasons, are holding two jobs.”

Now of course, he claims otherwise: We had people working three jobs, two jobs, and they were doing worse than they did 20 years ago. That’s not happening anymore.”

Actually, no matter how hard politicians try to spin it, the percentage of people with two or more jobs has been around 5 percent for almost a decade. Democrats suggesting this is something new — in an era of unusually low unemployment — are misleading their supporters.

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Share the Facts
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Lacks Context
“Millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.”
in a speech in North Charleston, S.C.
Friday, March 15, 2019
Share the Facts
Washington Post rating logo Washington Post Rating:
Data is fishy
“I have already shared with you that many are working second or third jobs — in fact in Texas, half of your colleagues are working a second or third job just to put food on the table.”
in remarks in Mount Pleasant, Iowa
Friday, March 15, 2019