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By James B. Nelson December 11, 2013

Gov. Scott Walker says the current economic recovery is worst in U.S. history

On Page 1 of his new book, Gov. Scott Walker makes the case that Wisconsin residents are facing some tough times.

The first-term Republican governor declares the "view from Washington D.C. these days is pretty grim" and cites the re-election of President Barack Obama, the Affordable Care Act, tax increases, the national debt and the economy as a whole:

"We are experiencing the worst economic recovery America has ever had," Walker writes.

That’s a strong statement.

After all, the claim encompases more than 10 recessions and recoveries, including the post-Sept. 11 decline, the 1980 double dip recession, and, of course, the Great Depression.

So is the state of affairs today really the worst of times?

The publicist for Walker’s book didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. So, we’ll start with what Walker listed as his evidence.

The footnotes cite an Aug. 3, 2012 entry on the Washington Post’s "The Fix" politics blog.

The blog item discusses political ads by Republicans that use a snippet from a July 17, 2012 CBS newscast in which anchor Scott Pelley says: "This is the worst economic recovery America has ever seen."

The short snippet contains no statistical backup to Pelley’s assertion, which was part of the  introduction to a report about unemployment.

What’s more, the blog entry doesn’t exactly give the claim a ringing endorsement. It notes that other claims have been made regarding the recovery -- it’s the slowest in memory, second slowest since World War II, and that the jobs recovery is the slowest since the Depression.

Then it notes: "Most media outlets aren’t describing the recovery as the slowest ever. In other words, there’s not yet a consensus on this. So what Pelley was saying is news to plenty of people."

So the footnote Walker cited actually undermines his claim instead of supporting it.

Another look

So, how does the recovery from the Great Recession stack up?

The recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which is the official arbiter of such things. It is agreed that it was the nation’s worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

As for the recovery, Walker didn’t describe how he was measuring a recovery, but experts say there are numerous tools you can use to do so.  

Two of the most frequently used are employment and economic output.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis website even has a tool that allows comparisons of the 10 recessions and recoveries since 1948 using those indicators. (The tool doesn’t extend back to the Depression because official government data gathering by the Bureau of Labor Statistics didn’t take place that far back.)

"This page provides a current assessment of 'how bad' the 2007-2009 recession was relative to past recessions, and of how quickly the economy is recovering relative to past recoveries," the Fed explains on its site.

Here’s what the Fed’s site says:

Employment: This recovery is not the worst when it comes to jobs. The employment recovery after the 1980 recession was particularly difficult. Then, the recovery sputtered and the economy slid into that "double dip" recession. Employment took 36 months to move to positive territory.

During the recovery from the 2001 recession, employment didn’t crawl out of negative territory for about 28 months. By comparison, in the recovery from the 2007 recession, employment returned to positive territory after 20 months.

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Economic output: This recovery is the slowest since the Depression when it comes to economic output. After 17 months, the gross domestic product had increased 9.98 percent in the recent recovery.

The recovery in output after the 1980 recession took place at a quicker pace, but after a far slower start. That recovery saw little growth in output between months five and 10, compared with slow but steady increases in the months following the start of the 2007 recovery.

Put another way: the recovery from the 2007 recession took longer, but the country’s output was better than the 1980 recovery for a significant stretch.

So, using the Fed’s calculator, Walker is wrong on employment and right on economic output -- but this does not account for the Great Depression.

How does the Depression compare?

Comparing the current recovery with recovery from the Depression is a little more difficult, said Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, senior vice president and director of research for the Minneapolis Fed.

In the four years following the end of the Depression in 1933, gross domestic product shot up 43 percent, he said. That compares with 7 percent from 2009 and 2012, the most recent year  for which data is available.

But that’s not a clean comparison, in part because Depression was so severe.

"In the Depression, GDP dropped so much that it couldn’t help but go up a lot" during the recovery, said Schulhofer-Wohl, noting that he was speaking for himself and not the bank.

Wells Fargo economist Brian Jacobsen offered a similar perspective.

"The first year out of the Great Depression had a GDP growth rate of 11 percent while the growth from 2009 to 2010 was a mere 2.7 percent," he said.

Jacobsen said the economic decline in the Depression was much more severe than in the most recent recession.

"From 2007 to 2009, GDP dropped 3 percent while from 1929 to 1933, GDP dropped 27 percent," he said. "If you had to pick this anemic recovery or the recovery from the Great Depression, and you had to take their respective downturns, I'd take this recovery any day."

Employment-wise the Depression was worse than any other downturn. Unemployment peaked at 24.9 percent in 1933, according to one measure. Six years later, it was still at 17.2 percent, a far slower jobs recovery than what we’re now seeing.

And, there were economic upheavals that took place before the Depression.

"There were also terrible economic recoveries in the 1800s," Jacobsen said.

"In terms of recoveries, from 2009 to 2012, real per capita GDP grew about 6.1 percent.  The recovery in 1834, 1840, 1865, and 1893 were all much worse," Jacobsen said citing data from the Maddison Project, a global database of historical growth.

Walker is not the first politician to take aim at the slow recovery. PolitiFact has looked at versions of the too-slow recovery claim, although no statement has been as broad as Walker’s.

In June 2011, PolitiFact reviewed a statement by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney who said "This is the slowest job recovery since Hoover." That statement was rated False, because at that point of the recovery -- 23 months out -- there were two recoveries weaker in terms of employment than the current one, and three recoveries that saw an increase in the unemployment rate at that stage.

The New York Times studied the length of the recovery in an economic blog in August 2012.  

The Times took 10 metrics and compared the current recovery to all others since the Great Depression. In one category -- corporate profits -- the current recovery was better than the average of all of the other recoveries. In short, it’s not the worst.

"On almost every measure I looked at, there was at least one previous (completed) recovery that performed worse," Catherine Rampell wrote in the Times.

Our rating

In the opening passage of his new book, Walker cites the slow pace of the economic recovery as one of the woes facing Wisconsin. He says it’s the worst economic recovery the U.S. has ever had.

But the jobs recovery was slower in other recessions, including the Great Depression. Economic output is a little less cut and dried because the Depression was so severe that the bounce back was more pronounced.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

"Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge." Gov. Scott Walker

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, recessions and recoveries perspective graphic

National Bureau of Economic Research, Business Cycle Dating Process

"A Tale of Two Depressions, Redux," Center for Economic Policy Research, March 6, 2012

Walker cites

The Washington Post, "‘The worst economic recovery America has ever had’: Scott Pelley’s soon-to-be starring 2012 election role," Aug. 3, 2012, romney

Forbes, "The worst economic recovery since the Great Depression," Jan. 12. 2012

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "The Recession of 2007-2009."

Telephone interview, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, senior vice president, director of research, The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Nov. 19, 2013. article, "Comparing the Great Recession and the Great Depression," Sept. 13, 2013

Great Depression timeline

The New York Times, "Is this really the worst economic recovery since the Depression?" Aug. 10, 2012

The New York Times, "Obama vs Hoover," Oct. 31, 2012

Journal of Economic Perspectives, "Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s," Spring 1993

Bureau of Economic Analysis, Real Gross Domestic Product

The Maddison Project

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by James B. Nelson

Gov. Scott Walker says the current economic recovery is worst in U.S. history

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