Blog ››› ››› JOHN KERR & DAYANITA RAMESH
Right-wing media personalities have long claimed that the economy is worse off than it is in reality by citing inappropriate figures to distort the full picture. They claim that the “real” unemployment rate is much higher than the figure reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and they often point to the labor force participation rate as the main indicator of how healthy job growth is.
Donald Trump has claimed that the unemployment rate is as high as 42 percent, saying “these are the real unemployment numbers – the 5 percent figure is one of the biggest hoaxes in modern politics.” PolitiFact gave that claim a rating of “Pants on Fire,” its worst possible verdict, but right-wing media have repeatedly enabled this lie by claiming that as many as 94 million Americans are "not in the labor force," failing to note that this 94 million includes: students, retirees, stay-at-home parents, and those institutionalized in mental health or penal facilities. As of August 2016, the official unemployment rate is 4.9 percent, down from a peak of 10 percent in October 2009 following the financial crisis.
Conservative pundits like to cite the labor force participation rate, which is the percentage of the population that is in the labor force, as proof that the economy is in decline. They use this rate because it is downward trending while the unemployment rate has been steadily improving for nearly six years. The reason the labor force participation rate is on the decline though, is because "baby boomers" are retiring en masse; in fact, roughly 10,000 people reach retirement age every day. Labor force participation peaked during the Clinton administration, and President Obama inherited an economy in the midst of a deep recession from President Bush. The idea that Obama is to blame for an imaginary economic decline is just misinformation.
Many economists agree that the employment to population ratio is a better measure of economic health -- as it represents the number of jobs available as a proportion of the total population -- and the ratio has been gradually improving since the end of the recession.
These types of myths are harmful. CNN Money recently highlighted a study from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University which found that while the unemployment rate is only 4.9 percent, 57 percent of Americans “believe it is a lot higher” because the “general public has ‘extremely little factual knowledge’ about the job market and labor force.” The article also noted how “Donald Trump has tapped into this confusion” by “repeatedly call[ing] the official unemployment rate a ‘joke’ and even a ‘hoax.’”