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Now that it's been 100 days since the economic stimulus package was signed into law, President Barack Obama is praising the measure for its job-creating impact.
"In these last few months, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has saved or created nearly 150,000 jobs — jobs building solar panels and wind turbines, making homes and buildings more energy efficient," Obama said during a visit to Las Vegas. "They're the jobs of teachers and police officers and nurses who have not been laid off as a consequence of this Recovery Act. They're the jobs fixing roads and bridges, jobs at start-ups and small businesses, and jobs that will put thousands of young Americans to work this summer."
We were intrigued by that number of 150,000 jobs. Note the crucial point that it's jobs created or "saved." That means they're counting people who have avoided layoffs because of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. How do you count that?
It's actually an estimate created by White House economists.
Jared Bernstein, the chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, explained the number during a conference call with reporters on May 27, 2009.
"The 150,000 is a number that is derived relative to what's called a baseline, that is, relative to the amount of jobs we think we would be losing were the act not in place," Bernstein said.
His argument is that even though the number of unemployed is increasing across the United States, the numbers would be bigger without the stimulus package.
If you compare where employment is relative to where it would have been, "that gap between those two, that's the 150,000 thus far," Bernstein said. "We're looking at saving or creating another 600,000 over the next hundred days."
A reporter asked Bernstein where the administration thought the baseline would be in 100 days. But Bernstein said he couldn't project out that far.
We've long been skeptical when public officials throw out big numbers without explaining that they're talking about estimates. We're particularly wary of baselines, as we were for a previous ruling on Obama's claim about deficit reduction , because they can be unrealistic and exaggerate the impact of a policy.
In the case of the stimulus, we're talking about the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression and an unprecedented amount of government spending in an effort to get the economy going again.
Certainly, the stimulus is creating some jobs. Anecdotal evidence from around the country, compiled by the Obama administration to promote its efforts, makes that case by showing that public employees in some cities and states have avoided layoffs. But those are just anecdotes.
So can there be 150,000 in the first 100 days?
"It's certainly plausible given the consensus of most economists believe will be the result of the stimulus over the next few years," said James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy for the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
He pointed to testimony from Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan arm of Congress. Elmendorf said the recovery act should boost employment between 900,000 and 2.3 million by the end of the 2009.
"So 150,000 seems clearly within reason," Horney said.
But a policy expert from a right-leaning think tank told us that Obama's number is ridiculous.
"They're just making up numbers and trying them out," said J.D Foster, senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who studies fiscal policy. "In a period when the economy is bleeding 2 million jobs, to suggest that you can identify 150,000 jobs that you've saved or created is pure fantasy."
The economy has indeed lost 1.9 million jobs in February, March, and April, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The May numbers will be announced June 5, 2009.
We also talked with an economist at Moody's Economy.com, a business-oriented research group. Gus Faucher, the site's director of macroeconomics, said the stimulus has improved people's confidence about the economy, but he said it's not yet possible to put a firm number on jobs created. The data just isn't there yet, he said, and the Labor Department will continue to adjust its unemployment data over the course of many months.
"The answer is, it's too soon to tell," he said. "We may not have an answer in months or even years in terms of an exact number."
Indeed, 100 days is a relatively small window to measure a package that will roll out over several years.
It's important to note that the government itself has issued confusing data about what has been spent and not. On May 21, for example, the Recovery.gov Web site corrected a report that said that it had paid out $8.9 billion in unemployment money, when that was actually still money sitting in the bank waiting to be tapped.
The recovery act has many reporting requirements, and states and localities are required to report on job creation. But much of that data is still coming in. (For even more details on how job data will be reported, check out this ProPublica story, Is the Stimulus Stimulating Jobs? We May Never Know for Sure .)
We find that the stimulus is a complicated, ongoing effort and data collection is just getting started. The Obama administration does not provide a solid accounting for either the jobs "created" or "saved." Yes, there is anecdotal evidence that jobs are being saved, such as the 25 police recruits in Columbus, Ohio, in an example cited by Obama. But the 150,000 figure sounds specific and verifiable when actually it's the administration's best guess for a relatively small snapshot in time. Because it's not much better than a guess presented as a fact, we rate his statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.
The White House, Remarks by President Obama at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev., May 27, 2009
The White House, Council of Economic Advisers, Estimates of job creation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 , May 2009
White House conference call with Rob Nabors, OMB Deputy Director, and Jared Bernstein, chief economic adviser to Vice President Biden , May 27, 2009 (accessed via Nexis)
Recovery.gov, Investments by Agency (footnoted correction)
White House Web site, 100 Days, 100 Projects , May 27, 2009
Interview with James Horney of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Interview with J.D. Foster of the Heritage Institute
Interview with Gus Faucher of Moody's Economy.com
Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009 Unemployment
Congressional Budget Office, Testimony of Douglas Elmendorf , May 21, 2009
ProPublica, Accounting error rolls back stimulus spending , May 29, 2009
ProPublica, Is the Stimulus Stimulating Jobs? We May Never Know for Sure , May 20, 2009
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