This was by no means the first time that Trump had used the number of people working in the country as evidence of how well his presidency was going. In November we assessed his claim, pointing out that the record number of people working was in part a function of the economy — and, in part, a function of population growth. It would have been very hard to have 160 million people working in the United States in 1930, for example, because there were only 130 million people in the country.
Nonetheless, Trump’s talking point was broadly accurate. In February, there were more people employed in the country than at any point on record. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 152 million non-farm employees that month.
Trump made those comments on Feb. 22. Four days later, he held his first news briefing focused on the coronavirus pandemic as the government was reporting the first known case of the virus spreading to someone who hadn’t traveled overseas. Within weeks, states were shutting down their economies in an effort to halt the spread of the virus.
On Friday morning, we got a sense of the toll those efforts took on employment. Last month, the number of people in the country working dropped to about 131 million.
That’s the lowest number of people working since 2011.
As you might expect, the number of people reporting that they weren’t working spiked. In April, there were more than 23 million people unemployed.
Trump won’t boast about it, understandably, but that is itself a record for the country. Before April, the most people out of work at one time was about 15 million, a number we saw in late 2009 — and at the height of the Great Depression. Again, population growth is an important consideration, but it’s still a significant jump.
One bit of context missing from that figure, though, is that unemployment numbers don’t include everyone who isn’t working. They only include people who aren’t working but are looking for work. The actual number of people not working is north of 200 million, if you include babies, retirees and so on. There’s a reason we don’t generally include those individuals in unemployment figures.
The BLS assesses the number of people not working based on the number who say they are looking for work and other factors, a group referred to as the labor force. In March and April, as employment sank, so did participation in the labor force.
There are fewer people in the labor force now than at any point since late 2014.
But, again, that doesn’t account for population. To consider the number of people not looking for work while accounting for population, we can look at the labor force participation rate, a measure of the density of the population who are in the labor force relative to the number who might be. In April, the labor force participation rate dropped to 60.2 percent, the lowest measure since January 1973.
Again, this is a function of the coronavirus pandemic. But it is also, to some extent, a function of how the government chose to address that pandemic. Americans are generally confident about getting back to work once the immediate threat of the virus fades, and Trump has boasted about that happening as well.
Whether that happens depends to a significant extent on the decisions the government makes moving forward.