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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 2:00 pm

Fact check: What candidate Trump would say about President Trump's economic record

GLENN KESSLER | Washington Post

President Donald Trump loves to extol the economic performance of the United States under his watch, frequently (if inaccurately) saying it's the best economy in U.S. history.

The president often suggests the current economy is a sharp turnabout from the Obama years, even though the economy he inherited from President Barack Obama was already doing pretty well, with low unemployment, low inflation and a roaring stock market.

There might be a reason Trump believes the economy has sharply improved -- he constantly said the Obama economy was terrible. He even had the fake facts to prove it.

We debunked many of Trump's economic claims during the campaign. But we wondered how today's economy would look if the numbers were calculated under the same metrics used by candidate Trump.

The 'phony' unemployment rate

"Our real unemployment rate is 42 percent." -- Trump, in an interview with Time magazine, posted Aug. 18, 2015

"Our real unemployment is anywhere from 18 to 20 percent. Don't believe the 5.6. Don't believe it." -- Trump, in his campaign announcement speech, June 16, 2015

"They have this phony number, 5.2 percent. Everybody that quits looking for a job is considered statistically a person that has a job. It's a phony number. You probably -- real number's like 22, 23 percent." -- Trump, speech at Liberty University, Jan. 18, 2016

The unemployment rate in July was listed as 3.9 percent, just slightly above an 18-year low of 3.8 percent reached in May. The unemployment rate was 4.8 percent when Trump took the office, down from a high of 10 percent in Obama's first year.

We should note the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not come up with the definition of "unemployed" out of thin air. It reflects an internationally embraced definition set by the International Labor Organization in 1982.

For the record, the BLS also produces a broader unemployment rate, which includes people who work part time because they can't get a full-time job. That rate was 7.5 percent in July, compared with 9.4 percent when Trump took office (and 17.1 percent at its height under Obama).

But Trump repeatedly knocked the official unemployment rate as a "phony number" when he ran for president. He was not consistent in explaining what he considered the real number -- his figures ranged from 18 percent to 42 percent -- so here's what today's 3.9 percent rate would look like under Trump's campaign math.

For the lower figure, we will take the number of unemployed and then add people who work part time (either for economic reasons, such as slack business conditions, or for noneconomic reasons) and people marginally attached to the labor force (such as those who want to work but are discouraged). Then we measure that against the total size of the civilian workforce. That gives us a rate of nearly 21 percent.

Trump's high-end figure of 42 percent was calculated by determining the percentage of the population that was not in the labor force (including retirees and students) as compared with the entire civilian non-institutional population. It was a crazy way to do it, but that was how Trump did his calculation.

As of July, that rate would be 37 percent.

So if Trump were running against himself, he presumably would decry an "unemployment rate" of 21 percent to 37 percent while denouncing 3.9 percent as phony.

'A silent nation of jobless Americans'

"Right now, 92 million Americans are on the sidelines outside of the workforce, and they're not a part of our economy. It's a silent nation of jobless Americans." -- Trump, speech to the Economic Club of New York, Sept. 15, 2016

Trump, in a major speech, conjured up "a silent nation of jobless Americans" using a particularly misleading statistic -- people who are not in the labor force. More than 90 percent of these people do not want a job because they are retired, in school, on disability or taking care of young children, according to a BLS analysis.

With the retirement of the baby boom generation, more people keep dropping out of the labor force. So the number of Americans supposedly not part of the economy now stands at 96 million. That's an increase of 4 percent.

Candidate Trump might be angry with President Trump for his failure to deal with this problem.

African American youth unemployment

"Look at how much African American communities are suffering from Democratic control. . . . Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed, what the hell do you have to lose?" -- Trump, rally in Dimondale, Mich., Aug. 19, 2016

This was one of the more cynical calculations done by the Trump campaign. Again, it involves counting people "not in the labor force" as part of the unemployed.

"Not in the labor force" refers to people who are not looking for jobs because they have given up looking or are not interested -- such as students. Students working part-time while going to school are counted in the "employed" category.

That means Trump was counting students who are not looking for work as part of the "unemployed" population.

Technically, those students don't have jobs. But that does not fit the definition of "unemployed" and is especially problematic for this age group, because the number of people who aren't looking for work includes people who are in school full time and may be doing extracurricular activities but have no interest in or need for a job.

Trump's claim of 58 percent youth unemployment thus turned out to be almost three times the official rate for black youths at the time.

At his rallies, Trump frequently brags the unemployment rate for African Americans has hit an all-time low since it first was calculated starting in 1972. But by his own campaign math, the numbers turned worse under his watch: Black youth "unemployment" was 77 percent in 2017.

The bottom line

Having made so many inaccurate claims about the health of the economy under Obama, it is little wonder that Trump might believe he's performed an economic miracle now that he is relying on official government data.

But as our exercise demonstrates, his record does poorly -- or looks even worse -- when the numbers are recalculated under his old campaign math.

The irony is that the generally rosy economic news under Obama was not felt evenly across the country -- and thus Trump's campaign skepticism about the official numbers probably struck a chord with voters.

Even after the sustained recovery from the Great Recession, a key employment metric -- the employment-population ratio for people in the prime working years of 25 to 54 -- still has not achieved parity with the level before that economic downturn. That suggests the economy is not operating at its full potential despite Trump's boosterism.

At The Fact Checker, we were amazed at how quickly Trump embraced the official data after he repeatedly denounced it. In light of how his record would look under his campaign math, perhaps it should not have been a surprise.