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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 27, 2011

Michele Bachmann, in State of the Union rebuttal, says government employment grew as jobs overall declined

In her Tea Party Express-sponsored rebuttal to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 25, 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., sought to draw a contrast between the hemorrhaging of jobs nationally and an expansion of jobs in government.

"While the government grew," she said, "we lost more than 2 million jobs."

Analyzing this comment is somewhat tricky, because Bachmann’s time frame is open to interpretation (and her office didn’t return our inquiry seeking an explanation). Earlier in her comments, she referred to the jobless rate "within three months" after the stimulus bill became law, and she also referred to the month when the unemployment rate hit 9.4 percent. Since May 2009 fits both of those descriptions, we’ll assume Bachmann was using that as her yardstick.

She’s also vague about which populations she’s measuring. When she says "the government," she could mean any one of three things -- government as a whole (federal, state and local), the federal government only or the federal government minus the U.S. Postal Service, a carve-out sometimes used by economists. And when she says that "we lost more than 2 million jobs," she could mean employment overall or private-sector employment only (as a counterpoint to the government employment she cited in the first half of the comparison).

Because we don't know which she meant, we looked at all these options.

To do this, we examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the government’s official arbiter of employment data. Here’s how the data breaks down between May 2009 and December 2010, the most recent month for which figures are available:

• All government employment (federal, state and local). Start: 22,628,000. End: 22,259,000. Change: Down 369,000.

• Federal government employment. Start: 2,865,000. End: 2,852,000. Change: Down 13,000.

• Federal government employment minus the U.S. Postal Service. Start: 2,156,000. End: 2,208,700. Change: Up 52,700.

• Total national employment. Start: 131,155,000. End: 130,712,000. Change: Down 443,000.

• Total private sector employment. Start: 108,527,000. End: 108,453,000. Change: Down 74,000.

So let’s look first at whether "the government grew." Bachmann would be wrong if she meant to refer either to total government (federal, state and local) or to total federal employment. Both of those measures lost jobs during that period.

However, she’d be correct if she meant that non-Postal Service federal employment grew.

Now, what about Bachmann’s claim that "we lost more than 2 million jobs"?

Neither total national employment nor private-sector employment declined by anything close to her number -- at least during the period she appeared to specify. To get to 2 million total jobs lost, you have to move the baseline back to February 2009. Shifting the time frame three months in one direction or the other wouldn’t ordinarily make much of a difference, but in this case, it does, because job losses nationally were so steep during early 2009. Total employment fell from 132,823,000 in February 2009 to 130,594,000 in May, down 2.2 million jobs, and now stands at 130,712,000, down 2.1 million.

So where does this leave us? When measured in two common ways, Bachmann is wrong about government jobs increasing, but she’s right using a third, less intuitive measurement -- that is, for federal employment not including the U.S. Postal Service.

As for total employment, she’s off by quite a bit if you begin the clock in May 2009, but you only have to move the time frame back by three months in order to meet her 2 million threshold.

So one part of her statement is untrue except by one uncommon measurement, and the other part is incorrect if the starting date is May 2009 but accurate counting from February 2009 and in tune with the general trend since the start of Obama’s term. On balance, we rate her comment Half True.

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