by Matt O’Brien
The unemployment rate is not a conspiracy. It is not manipulated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And anyone who suggests otherwise is either uninformed, or trying to misinform others.
Which is to say that you shouldn’t listen to Donald Trump & Co. For a year now, the alleged billionaire has insisted that the “real” unemployment rate is something like 42 percent instead of the 4.9 percent it actually is. He hasn’t said how he’s gotten this — maybe it’s from the same “extremely credible source” who told him President Obama’s birth certificate was fake? — but the simplest explanation is that he’s just ballparking how many adults don’t work. That’s 40.4 percent right now. The problem with using that number, though, is that it counts college students and stay-at-home parents and retirees as being equally “unemployed” as people who are actively looking for work but can’t find any. So it doesn’t tell us too much, at least not on its own, unless you think it’s a problem that we have more 70-year-olds than we used to.
Or unless conspiracy theories are one of your favorite accessories, as seems to be the case with the father, and now the son, Donald Trump Jr. On Sunday, hetold CNN’s Jake Tapper that the official unemployment numbers are “artificial” ones that are “massaged to make the existing economy look good” and “this administration look good.” How do they supposedly do this? By, he claimed, defining “the way we actually measure unemployment” to be that “after x number of months, if someone can’t find a job, congratulations, they’re miraculously off” the jobless rolls. The only problem with this theory is it’s false. The BLS hasn’t changed the way it measures unemployment during the Obama years, and there is zero evidence it has changed the numbers themselves. Not only that, but Donald Trump Jr. doesn’t even seem to know how unemployment is defined in the first place. As the BLS explains, everyone who doesn’t have a job but is trying to find one counts as “unemployed.” It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been looking as long as you are, in fact, still looking.
But that’s not to say the unemployment rate tells us everything we need to know about the labor market. It doesn’t. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen will tell you that herself. There are still a lot of people who want full-time but can only find part-time jobs. Still a lot of people who want to work but weren’t able to find anything for so long that they’ve given up looking for now. And still a lot of people who would want to work again if wages were high enough to make it worth their while. But none of this is a secret. The BLS publishes all this, too. So-called broad unemployment includes all these people who technically aren’t unemployed but aren’t fully employed, either. That’s 9.6 percent today.