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As President Barack Obama headed to Scranton, Pa., to push for an extension of a payroll tax break on Nov. 30, 2011, the Republican National Committee released a 30-second Web video criticizing him for the economy’s performance on his watch.
The ad aired audio clips of a candidate Obama visit to Scranton on March 31, 2008, when he was engaged in a tight primary battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. As the ad shows images of shuttered factories, Obama talks about the nation’s economic difficulties. Several phrases appear on the screen:
"In 2008 … he promised Pennsylvanians hope & change … Today: Unemployment up 19% … 37,900 Pennsylvania manufacturing jobs lost … 189,000 more Pennsylvanians in poverty … Failed promises. Change direction."
We’ll take the easy ones first, then take up the complicated one.
Unemployment in Pennsylvania is up 19 percent.
Making comparisons like these can be a bit confusing, because it’s easy to mix up percentage points and percents. But the number is accurate.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate in January 2009 was 6.8 percent, while its rate in October 2011 was 8.1 percent. That’s an increase of 1.3 percentage points, but that can also be expressed as an increase of 19 percent above the initial level.
We should point out that Pennsylvania unemployment is actually down by seven-tenths of a point from its peak of 8.8 percent between January 2010 to April 2010. Expressed the way the ad did it, that means unemployment has fallen by 8 percent since its peak.
But we have no quibble with the RNC’s methodology.
There are 189,000 more Pennsylvanians in poverty.
According to the Census Bureau, the number of Pennsylvanians in poverty rose from 1,335,000 in 2008 (the final year before Obama took office) to 1,521,000 in 2010 (the last year for which data is available). That’s a difference of 186,000 -- close enough in our book to the 189,000 cited in the ad.
37,900 Pennsylvania manufacturing jobs were lost.
According to state employment statistics compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number is correct. Between January 2009, when Obama took office, and October 2011, the most recent month for which state figures are available, Pennsylvania did indeed lose 37,900 manufacturing jobs.
But that isn’t the end of the story.
For starters, it’s PolitiFact’s policy not to focus solely on the accuracy of the numbers in political attacks (or, conversely, efforts to claim political credit) but also to determine whether blame or credit for the results is justified. (This policy applies to all three statistics in this ad.)
For job-creation and job-loss claims, we have ruled that politicians’ policies are just one factor in employment levels, making even statistically accurate claims something less than True on our Truth-O-Meter.
However, the suggestion that manufacturing jobs have declined due to Obama’s policies is even more questionable than most job-related claims we’ve reviewed. As we have noted earlier, the nation’s manufacturing activity has fallen off a cliff over the past 50 years. This stems from countless reasons, ranging from the expansion of free trade to educational attainment patterns to the emergence of new sectors such as information technology.
In January 1960, manufacturing jobs accounted for 29 percent of U.S. employment. By March 2011, that had fallen by about two-thirds, to just 9 percent. And in Pennsylvania, the number of manufacturing jobs has fallen by 40 percent since January 1990, the oldest data available for the state on the BLS Website.
Based on this context, we think it’s a stretch to blame Obama for the decline in manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania since January 2009. But the claim is even more problematic if you look at how manufacturing in Pennsylvania fared under Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.
Between the time Bush took office in January 2001 and the time he left in January 2009, the number of Pennsylvania manufacturing jobs fell by 244,900. Dividing by Bush’s eight years in the White House, that works out to an annual decline of 30,613 manufacturing jobs.
Yet taking the decline under Obama and dividing that by 2.83 years in office works out to 13,376 manufacturing jobs lost per year -- or less than half the rate of decline under Bush.
In other words, during the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, Pennsylvania manufacturing job losses declined less than half as quickly under Obama as under Bush. This clashes with the overall message of the ad, which is that Obama economic policies have failed Pennsylvania, and -- judging by the ad’s imagery -- its manufacturing sector in particular.
This may not offer much solace for the Obama camp -- it’s hard to crow, "The Pennsylvania manufacturing sector eroded more slowly on our watch than it did under our predecessor!" -- but we do think it’s important context to point out.
The ad gets all of its numbers right, but it overreaches by holding Obama fully accountable for these trends. In particular, the RNC’s manufacturing jobs statistic ignores both a decades-long national and state decline in manufacturing jobs and the fact that the rate of manufacturing job losses in Pennsylvania during Obama’s presidency was slower than the rate of job losses under his predecessor, George W. Bush. On balance, we rate the claim Half True.
Republican National Committee, "Failed Promises: Scranton" (Web video), Nov. 30, 2011
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics summary page for Pennsylvania, accessed Nov. 30, 2011
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment, Hours, and Earnings - State and Metro Area (Current Employment Statistics - CES)" main Pennsylvania index page, accessed Nov. 30, 2011
U.S. Census Bureau, Table 21: Number of Poor and Poverty Rate by State, accessed Nov. 30, 2011
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