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During the Jan. 22, 2013, edition of his Fox News show, Sean Hannity introduced an interview segment with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., by noting that during his second inauguration, President Barack Obama barely mentioned the primary topic of the 2012 presidential election -- the economy.
After playing some excerpts from Obama’s inaugural speech, Hannity said, "While Obama remains hell-bent on tackling national security threats like climate change, the president made no substantive references to economic matters like putting you the American people back to work."
Then, welcoming McCarthy to the show, Hannity said, "8.3 (million) fewer Americans are working today than there were four years ago. What is your reaction to that?" (Hannity actually inadvertently failed to say the word "million," but in context, it was clear what he meant, so we won’t let that affect our ruling.)
We wondered whether it was really true that "8.3 (million) fewer Americans are working today than there were four years ago."
There’s an easy way to find out. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on the number of Americans who are employed at any given time. Using their figures for total, nonfarm employment, there were 358,000 fewer people working in December 2012 than there were in December 2008 -- a far cry from 8.3 million.
So by this standard -- and we believe it’s the correct one to use in this context -- Hannity is flat wrong. But the 8.3 million figure, which has been a hot topic in conservative circles recently, has a grain of truth to it.
Hannity’s primary problem was sloppy phrasing. He referred to 8.3 million "fewer Americans … working today," but he would have been on firmer ground if he’d said that "8.3 million more Americans are not working today" compared to four years ago. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but it’s not.
Actually, it’s crucial.
What’s at issue here are the number of Americans who have left the workforce during the past four years. The most frequently discussed economic statistics don’t do a very good job documenting these workers, and why they make that decision. For instance, a worker may have a baby and leave to become a stay-at-home mom or dad. Or a recent college grad may detour into grad school.
Some of these decisions may have happened anyway, regardless of the state of the job market. But some may decide to raise a child or go to grad school because the job market is poor.
Let’s look at where the 8.3 million figure emerged -- in an article in CNSNews.com, a conservative outlet. (The Fox News press office did not respond to an inquiry.) The article starts with BLS data for the number of Americans aged 16 and older, then subtracts the number who are employed. What’s left refers to the number of Americans who are "not working" at any given time, for any reason.
We did our own calculation for the December 2008 to December 2012 time frame and found that CNSNews had actually understated the count. By our count, the number of Americans not working increased by almost 9.6 million.
Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves -- this number isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, either. Specifically, it’s a big stretch to tie this increase to Obama, as Hannity clearly does based on his introductory video clips and comments. Why?
• A big reason for the rise in non-working Americans is the graying of the Baby Boom generation, something Obama has no control over.
We looked at Census Bureau data to estimate the population of Americans aged 65 or more. There is no data for 2012, so we used the increase in the 65-and-over population from 2007 to 2011 instead. (Given demographic trends, the increase through 2012 would likely be higher, but we’ll stick with the hard numbers.)
We found that the population aged 65 and over rose by 3.1 million between 2007 and 2011. So, 3.1 million of the 9.6 million more non-working Americans are due in large part to the aging of the population. That leaves a rise of roughly 6.5 million Americans that might, theoretically, be attributable to Obama and the economy he presided over.
That number, 6.5 million, is lower than Hannity’s 8.3 million, but it’s still pretty big. (To its credit, CNSNews offered a similar reduction using Social Security beneficiary data, lowering the number of non-workers under Obama to about 4.1 million -- though readers who saw the headline or skimmed the story likely would have missed it.)
But there’s another important factor to consider:
• The number of non-workers has been growing since well before Obama entered office.
To determine how different the economy was under Obama, you have to have a sense of what it was like before he became president. So we did exactly the same calculations for the four-year period immediately before he took office – December 2004 to December 2008, under President George W. Bush.
In the 2004-08 period, the number of non-working Americans rose by 7.2 million and the number of elderly rose (between 2003 and 2007) by 1.8 million. So the rise of non-workers not attributable to the elderly was 5.4 million.
This means the increase in non-workers was indeed bigger under Obama – there were more than 1 million extra non-workers under Obama than under Bush -- but the increase was quite a bit smaller than one would think from hearing Hannity’s comment.
Experts say that this is an important statistic to be concerned about, though they also caution that it’s hard, if not impossible, to know what portion of these 1 million extra non-workers stems from Obama’s policies. We don’t know, after all, to what extent those leaving the job market are doing so because the economy is poor as opposed to other, more personal reasons.
"The idea of more Americans not working is a valid and interesting concept -- economists have been worried about this," said Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist. "There is clearly a downtrend in labor force participation. The question is how much of this would have happened without the recession -- or with different policies, or whatever the comparison is -- versus how much is long term trends, which we may or may not want to target with policies and may simply be due to demographics" or changing attitudes.
Hannity said that under President Barack Obama, "8.3 (million) fewer Americans are working today than there were four years ago." That’s simply wrong; the actual decrease in working Americans over that period was less than one-twentieth that amount.
There is reason to be concerned about a related, but distinct, statistic -- that there are perhaps 8 million or 9 million more Americans than there were four years ago who are not working, for a variety of reasons. But that number is heavily affected by the graying of the Baby Boom generation and by long-term patterns that have nothing to do with Obama -- and in any case, it’s not what Hannity said. We rate Hannity’s claim False.
Fox News, "Obama's second term goal to 'break' the Republican Party?" Jan. 22, 2013
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National)," accessed Jan. 25, 2013
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey," accessed Jan. 25, 2013
Census Bureau, "Age and Sex Composition in the United States: 2011," accessed Jan. 25, 2013
Census Bureau, "Age and Sex Composition in the United States: 2007," accessed Jan. 25, 2013
Census Bureau, "Age and Sex Composition in the United States: 2003," accessed Jan. 25, 2013
CNSNews, "First Term: Americans ‘Not in Labor Force’ Increased 8,332,000," Jan. 20, 2013
Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Jan. 24, 2013
Email interview with Betsy Stevenson, economist at the University of Michigan, Jan. 24, 2013
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, economist at George Washington University, Jan. 24, 2013
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