The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The June jobs numbers were good — in part because they predate the new coronavirus surge

People line up outside a Kentucky Career Center hoping to find assistance with their unemployment claims in Frankfort on June 18. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

After the Bureau of Labor Statistics published data showing an increase of 4.8 million jobs in June, President Trump quickly announced a news briefing to tout the numbers.

“Today’s announcement proves that our economy is roaring back,” Trump said during his comments. “It’s coming back extremely strong.”

On the surface, that seems like a fair assessment. Yes, employment is still down drastically since the beginning of the year, but despite the pandemic, the jobs numbers have improved two months in a row. Trump pledged a V-shaped recovery and now wants to imply that that’s on course. That despite a recent surge in new coronavirus cases.

But in their coverage of the new jobs data, The Post’s Eli Rosenberg and Heather Long raise a critical point: Those new jobs numbers were measured at about the best possible point for Trump’s rhetoric.

It’s natural to assume that the jobs numbers reflect the change in employment from the beginning to the end of a month. In other words, that the June jobs numbers reflect change in employment between the third and fourth dark vertical bars on the graph below.

Were that the case, it would in fact be remarkable that employment had expanded so much in light of how the pandemic has resurged.

But that’s not how the jobs report works. Instead, it measures employment on pay periods covering the 12th of each month. In other words, it measures at the points on the dark vertical bars below.

That presents a much different picture of how the pandemic is changing.

Consider the monthly change in the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases when looking at the change relative to the 12th of each month with the change relative to the 1st of each month.

On May 12 — the date used to assess the May jobs numbers — the average number of new coronavirus cases was about where it was June 1, where you might expect the May job numbers to be measured. But on June 12, the average number of new coronavirus cases was about half of where the number was on July 1, a massive difference.

The natural assumption would be that, as the number of new cases increases, the number of jobs decreases. Why? Because one of the most effective tools we have for containing the virus is limiting person-to-person interactions, which has meant limiting things like retail, leisure and dining.

Comparing the change in new infections from the 12th of the previous month with the 12th of the month being measured for the jobs report, we see that inverse correlation. The number of new confirmed cases went up more than 10,000 percent from March 12 to April 12, given the emergence of the pandemic. But from April 12 to May 12 and from May 12 to June 12, the confirmed number of new cases declined — and employment numbers rose.

That relationship breaks when you look at the period from April 1 to May 1 and from May 1 to June 1. In April, there was an increase in new cases and a decrease in jobs tallied that month. In May, a decrease in new cases and an increase in employment. In June, though: a big spike in new cases, yet that increase in jobs.

That’s not bucking the trend. It’s a failure to reflect the shift in the pandemic.

Trump, though, can’t help but tout the numbers as proof of his success. His approach to the pandemic has consistently been to celebrate short-term successes even if those celebrations are soon revealed to have been obviously premature. His consistent hope is that things will just get better, fingers crossed, and that it’s worth touting an apparent success for the day’s newscasts.

The jobs announcement Thursday, though, doesn’t “prove that our economy is roaring back.” At most, it proves that the economy was roaring back up until June 12, when the average number of new coronavirus cases was 20,594.

It is now at more than 43,000.