“In eight years under the last administration, over 300,000 working-age people dropped out of the workforce. In just three years of my administration, 3.5 million people, working-age people, have joined the workforce.”

— President Trump, in the State of Union address, Feb. 4

This line from the president’s State of the Union address puzzled us till our puzzler was sore. It’s a line he also used in a recent speech before the World Economic Forum. But we couldn’t quickly figure out how it was calculated.

Well, the White House provided us with an explanation. It’s a complex calculation and much depends on when you start counting the numbers. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

Regular readers know that the Fact Checker often cautions against giving too much credit — or blame — to a president for job growth. There are too many factors beyond the president’s control. There’s also a problem with January, the month the president takes office.

A new president takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. But the Census Bureau collects the data for the January employment numbers during the week that includes the 12th day of the month. That means the January numbers reflect the change in jobs from Dec. 12 to Jan. 12. In other words, data for January show what happened to job growth under the previous president, not the new president.

That can make a difference when a president takes office in the middle of a recession, like Barack Obama. Nearly 800,000 jobs were lost in January 2009. Many journalists make the mistake of attributing January 2009 to Obama’s term, even though the numbers reflect what happened when George W. Bush was still president.

At the Fact Checker, we traditionally measure presidential terms starting in February, not January, because that’s when the data was first collected under the new president. In Obama’s case, just moving one month adds more than 1 million jobs to the “job creation” numbers in his presidency, which demonstrates how silly these metrics can be.

Let’s get back to the president’s statement. He was citing an uncommon metric which attempts to show the extent to which the tight job market is pulling people in. We received this explanation:

President Trump was referring to labor market flows. To reach the 3.5 million increase under the Trump Administration and the 300,000 decrease under the Obama Administration, add Not In Labor Force to Employed and Not In Labor Force to Unemployed for each month. Then subtract from that Employed to Not In Labor Force plus Unemployed to Not In Labor Force. Together, these results provide the overall changes for the administrations. Other Inflows and Other Outflows are excluded from this calculation to get a better representation of working-age Americans.

That’s a mouthful — and a very complicated calculation. You need to add together two sets of numbers, every month, and then subtract two sets of numbers that have also been added together. And then you have to add up the results for every month of a president’s term. (The data can be found here.)

With the help of Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who ran the numbers for us and provided a spreadsheet, we were able to replicate the White House’s math. But as we suspected, the White House assigns January 2009 to Obama. (A White House official confirmed that, as well.)

With January 2009 as the start date, you get: -339,000 under Obama and a gain of 3.52 million under Trump.

But look what happens when you measure from February 2009 to January 2017 for Obama, and start Trump in February 2017: -18,000 under Obama and a gain of 3.06 million for Trump. That’s a pretty big change by just shifting one month to reflect when the data actually was collected.

Moreover, Obama took office in the middle of a recession. Bernstein, who was an Obama economic adviser, says a better measure would be to compare the last three years of Obama with the first three years of Trump. That yields 2.3 million for Obama vs. 3 million for Trump, using February as our starting month. That’s still an edge for Trump, but not nearly as dramatic as he suggested in his speech.

The Pinocchio Test

Trump’s numbers add up, but he goosed the result by adding a month to Obama’s tally that more properly belongs to Bush. On top of that, Obama took office during a genuine economic crisis while Trump became president during an economic boom — a fact that Trump tries very hard to erase.

Two Pinocchios

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