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A drop in the unemployment rate right before the 2012 election has given conservatives a whiff of conspiracy.
On the Fox News Channel morning show Fox and Friends, co-hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Elisabeth Hasselbeck discussed a New York Post report that alleged Census Bureau workers cooked the books between August and September 2012, dropping the unemployment rate from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent.
Hasselbeck said the report, from a Post columnist, identified one Census Bureau worker who admitted to fudging data in the past.
"Now we're finding out there was someone on one side of the scale," Hasselbeck told viewers. "There was a name, Julius Buckmon. ... He told in an interview that he was told to make up information as he went along. This is on crucial information as we headed into an election season."
The report was also cited on Fox News’ The Five and later on Hannity.
We decided to see if Buckmon is indeed a smoking gun about the reported 2012 fraud. We also wanted to learn a little bit more about how the unemployment rate is calculated and what impact a Census Bureau employee can have.
The 'Post' report
The original New York Post report from columnist John Crudele essentially reaches the same conclusion as Hasselbeck, though perhaps not as definitively. Using an unnamed source, Crudele builds a case that Census Bureau workers were told by their supervisors to help drive down the unemployment rate ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
The source also handed over a piece of evidence -- the case of Census Bureau worker Julius Buckmon.
Buckmon was part of a Census Bureau team that helped collect information used to calculate the unemployment rate, which is based on a survey of about 60,000 households. The Census Bureau is in charge of the people who ask the questions. The data is then collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Labor Department, which in turn creates monthly employment statistics.
Buckmon said he made up at least some of his results instead of surveying households. Buckmon told the Post about a conversation with his supervisor at the bureau.
"It was a phone conversation — I forget the exact words — but it was, ‘Go ahead and fabricate it’ to make it what it was," Buckmon said.
The problem for Hasselbeck is that Buckmon wasn’t working for the Census Bureau in 2012.
According to the Post, the alleged incident he described took place in 2010. Buckmon left the Census Bureau in August 2011, Census Bureau officials told us.
So Hasselbeck incorrectly overlapped Buckmon’s story with the rest of the Post article, which relies on an anonymous source.
(Buckmon did not return our calls seeking comment.)
The unemployment report
To be clear, we cannot say if the Post article is correct in its other points. But experts we spoke with agreed that it would be extremely difficult to alter the nationwide unemployment rate.
William Shobe, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at the University of Virginia and head of the Virginia chapter of the Association for University and Business Economic Research, said it’s important to remember that there are many measures of unemployment, including privately produced surveys.
"And they all agree, within the margins of error," Shobe said. "The immediate conclusion that you can draw from that is that no rogue interviewer or group of rogue interviewers have managed to budge the unemployment far (or at all, mind you) from the value it would have had otherwise."
Shobe added that any effort to fudge the national numbers would require the participation of interviewers across the country.
"Otherwise you would see only a localized move which would wash out as noise in the national stats," Shobe said.
Former Bureau of Labor Statistics commissioner Katharine Abraham backs up Shobe’s point. Abraham, who served as commissioner from 1993-2001 under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said that the typical interviewer handles between 35 and 55 households. That would translate to anywhere between about 1,000 and 1,700 interviewers to cover 60,000 households.
"Even if an interviewer made up all of his or her interviews," Abraham said, "each interviewer's share of the full sample is small enough that it would be rather unlikely for the made-up interviews to have affected the topside unemployment numbers at all."
In addition, Abraham said the Census Bureau doesn’t trust its staff blindly. It has a regular and random process of going back to the same households that were interviewed and interviewing them again.
As for the drop in the unemployment rate that led to suspicions of manipulation, Abraham remembers the popular reaction at the time, but says the monthly numbers can jump around.
"It's just not that surprising that, in the context of an unemployment rate that was generally trending downwards, there would be months when it took a big drop," Abraham said.
We should note that the Post story has gained traction beyond the media. Rep, Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chair of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to the head of the Census Bureau, saying he found the allegations "shocking." Issa told the bureau to deliver many documents, including emails to or from Buckmon and any investigations of alleged falsification of data.
Hasselbeck said Julius Buckmon was "on one side of the scale" and his fabricated interviews helped push the unemployment rate lower in September 2012. Buckmon did not work for the Census Bureau in 2012 and even if he had, people familiar with the workings inside the bureau doubt it would have made a difference. If he had slanted all of his reports to show a brighter employment picture, he would have likely been found out. If he slanted a smaller number, it would have no statistical impact.
We rate the claim False.
Fox News, Fox and Friends, Nov. 19, 2013
New York Post, Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report, Nov. 18, 2013
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Household survey - methods and measurement issues
Labor and Commerce Departments, Design and Methodology, March 2002
Business Insider, Washington's Top Watchdog Is Getting Involved In The Jobs Report-Rigging Story, Nov. 19, 2013
Email interview with Sonja Steptoe, associate dir for communications, U.S. Census Bureau, Nov. 19, 2013
Email interview with Katharine Abraham, professor, Joint Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Maryland, Nov. 19, 2013
Email interview with Bill Shobe, director, Center for Economic &and Policy Studies at the University of Virginia, Nov. 20, 2013
Email interview with Jesse Rothstein, professor of economics and public policy, University of California - Berkeley, Nov. 19, 2013
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