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In an ad titled "It's Just Not Getting Better," Mitt Romney takes aim at President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy.
"In June, jobless ranks were higher in nearly 90 percent of U.S. cities," the ad’s narrator says. "In July, unemployment went up again. And the president is running out of time. Under Obama’s economy, it’s just not getting better. Mitt Romney has a plan for a stronger middle class. Under the Romney plan, more jobs and more take-home pay. It’s a plan that works for America."
We wondered whether it was really true that "in June, jobless ranks were higher in nearly 90 percent of U.S. cities."
The article the ad relied on
We found the article the ad cited as its source, an Aug. 1, 2012, Associated Press report. We immediately noticed that the ad had ignored some caution signs that were clearly presented in the story. Here’s what AP wrote:
"Unemployment rates rose in nearly 90 percent of large U.S. cities in June, partly because many young people graduated from school with no firm job prospects.
"Many of the cities with significant increases in their rates have large universities, where students have begun searching for jobs in recent months. Unlike the national figures, the metro unemployment data isn't seasonally adjusted for such changes.
"The Labor Department says unemployment rates rose in 332 large metro areas. They fell in 29 and were unchanged in 11. That's worse than in May, when rates rose in 255 cities."
The article confirms that the number used in the ad is correct, and the numbers were worse when compared to the change between April and May. However, it’s also clear that by using that number on its own, the ad is ignoring some crucial context.
Between May and June, many high school and college students graduate, inflating the June unemployment numbers. A statistical process called seasonal adjustment corrects for such fluctuations, but as the article stated, the numbers quoted are not seasonally adjusted.
As the Romney campaign noted when we asked for comment, post-college unemployment is a significant issue in today’s recession. But there’s a difference between acknowledging the harm of unusually high levels of post-graduation unemployment and letting a sudden influx of new job-seekers in June skew the numbers.
Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution, told PolitiFact that the unadjusted unemployment rate has jumped from May to June in every single year over the last three decades. But once you seasonally adjust the numbers, many of those increases disappear entirely.
So, if you rely only on non-seasonally adjusted figures, then you have to believe that the labor market "has deteriorated in every single June that a Republican has occupied the White House, too" Burtless said.
(PolitiFact has noted that Burtless contributed $750 to Obama’s campaign in 2011. However, in 2008 he provided advice on aspects of labor policy to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and he has worked as a government economist and served on federal advisory panels under presidents of both parties.)
What would the seasonally adjusted numbers look like?
So is there a better way to look at the data? We asked Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist, to walk us through some alternative calculations.
First, we did the same calculation as the AP reported on, with one change: We used seasonally adjusted numbers. We found that just under 45 percent of the nearly 400 metro areas had a higher unemployment rate in June than they did in May. That’s half the 90 percent rate cited in Romney’s ad.
Next, we asked her to do the same calculation, but limit it to just the 50 biggest cities, to eliminate from the list such small locales as Lewiston, Idaho; Palm Coast, Fla.; Danville, Ill.; Elmira, N.Y.; Kokomo, Ind.; and Longview, Wash. This time, the percentage of metro areas with rising unemployment fell to about 35 percent, or just over one-third the percentage cited in the ad.
We also ran the numbers a different way, using a longer time period that diminishes the high volatility inherent in month-to-month comparisons. (While the AP story was clear about the time frame, the ad is not, and viewers wouldn’t know about the timing details without reading the story.)
If you compare the figures for June 2011 to June 2012, just 7 percent to 8 percent of metro areas saw an increase in unemployment over the previous year -- almost the exact opposite conclusion as the one cited in Romney’s ad.
The ad claims that "in June, jobless ranks were higher in nearly 90 percent of U.S. cities." The Romney campaign has many grim employment statistics it can legitimately cite in an ad such as this, but using this particular statistic is misleading.
The data the campaign relied on was not seasonally adjusted, so unemployment levels were exaggerated by the sudden graduation of high school and college students -- a caveat that was specifically noted high up in the story that the ad cited as its source.
As it turns out, even the highest seasonally adjusted calculation we made is just half the size of the 90 percent cited in the ad. And excluding volatile month-to-month figures by looking at a full year-long comparison actually leads to the exact opposite conclusion from the one drawn in the ad: Better than 90 percent of metro areas saw unemployment drop, not rise, over the previous year. We rate this claim Mostly False.
Mitt Romney, "It's Just Not Getting Better," Aug. 5, 2012
Associated Press, "Jobless ranks rose in 90 pct of US cities in June," Aug. 1, 2012
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics: Smoothed Seasonally Adjusted Metropolitan Area Estimates (index page), accessed Aug. 7, 2012
Email interview with Gary Steinberg, spokesman for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aug. 7, 2012
Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, Aug. 7, 2012
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, economist at George Washington University, Aug. 7, 2012
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