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In the Sept. 13, 2010, Delaware Senate debate between Democrat Chris Coons and Republican Christine O'Donnell, the candidates split in he-said, she-said fashion over an unemployment statistic.
O'Donnell kicked it off by charging that "unemployment here in New Castle County rose, almost doubled in the last two years under (Coons') watch as New Castle County executive."
A moment later, Coons countered, "I also frankly can't imagine where she found the numbers that unemployment doubled in just the past year under my watch. I suspect we're going to need to keep a close eye this evening on the numbers that go flying back and forth."
One of the moderators, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, interjected, "Let's ask her. Where did you get those numbers?"
O'Donnell responded, "The Department of Labor statistics. And we'll have them on our web site by tomorrow."
Sounds like a dispute tailor-made for PolitiFact: How much did unemployment rise in New Castle County, the most populous of Delaware's three counties?
Lets first clarify a few matters. In Coons' reply, he misstated the time frame O'Donnell had used, saying it was one year when in fact she had said she was looking at the past two years. We'll analyze the question using O'Donnell's criteria -- two years -- while noting that Coons garbled O'Donnell's time frame.
We also won't get into the question of whether a county executive deserves direct blame for rising unemployment, even though one can argue that unemployment is more sensitive to national and international economic factors than local ones.
For our answer, we turned to the Local Area Unemployment Statistics database at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the U.S. Labor Department.
In the most recent available month, August 2010, New Castle County, Del., registered an 8.7 percent unemployment rate. Two years before, in August 2008, the rate was 5.5 percent. (The figures are not seasonally adjusted, but since we're comparing August of one year to August of another, making seasonal adjustments should be irrelevant in this comparison.)
That's a difference of 3.3 percentage points, or an increase of 58 percent over the August 2008 unemployment rate of 5.5 percent. If the rate had doubled as O'Donnell said, it would have needed to increase by 100 percent, which would have brought the unemployment rate to 11 percent today. And it clearly isn't that high.
O'Donnell did give herself some breathing room by saying that the rate "almost" doubled over the past two years. But while it's possible to argue that 58 percent should be rounded up to 100 percent (or "double"), we think that's a stretch.
After we'd finished our research, we received a response from the O'Donnell campaign. A spokesman said that O'Donnell was actually referring to the rise in unemployment starting at the beginning of Coons' tenure as county executive. We confirmed with the New Castle County government that Coons, who was elected in November 2004, was inaugurated in January 2005.
So we looked at the county unemployment rate for January 2005 and found that it was 4.7 percent. That did rate roughly double by August 2010 -- but that's a period of five and a half years, not two, as O'Donnell had said in the debate. Using that time frame also measures unemployment from a point well before the economy slid into recession to a point of stubbornly high unemployment rates everywhere, so it would hardly be surprising to find the numbers rise.
As it happened, New Castle County performed better than the nation as a whole at each of these three points in time. The county's 4.7 percent unemployment rate in January 2005 was lower than the national 5.3 percent rate that month. The 5.5 percent unemployment rate in August 2008 was lower than the national rate of 6.2 percent that month, and the county's 8.7 percent in August 2010 was lower than the national rate of 9.6 percent. In fact, unemployment grew slightly more slowly in New Castle County over that period than it did nationally.
So where does this leave us? While O'Donnell is correct that unemployment has risen in New Castle County, as it has everywhere, the increase wasn't almost double over two years -- the period she said during the debate. By saying that she meant to measure it from the beginning of Coons' term as county executive, her campaign team is essentially conceding that she got the fact wrong. In our role as debate referee, we give Coons' stance that O'Donnell erred a rating of True.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, main search page for national unemployment statistics, accessed Oct. 14, 2010
Interview with Dave Yonkman, spokesman for the Christine O'Donnell campaign, Oct. 14, 2010
Interview with Angie Basiouny, spokeswoman for New Castle County, Del., government, Oct. 14, 2010
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