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With the nation mired in a long, slow recovery from the Great Recession, the past tends to have a rosy glow. Republicans like to tout the halcyon days of President Ronald Reagan, while Democrats fondly remember the era of President Bill Clinton.
During a recent interview on the Charlie Rose show on PBS, Hillary Clinton -- who had a front-row seat for the Bill Clinton era as first lady -- made clear her economic role model as she continues to weigh a 2016 presidential run.
"If I just were to compare Reagan’s eight years with Bill’s eight years, it’s like night and day in terms of the effects," Clinton said during the July 17, 2014, interview. "The number of jobs that were created, the number of people lifted out of poverty, a hundred times more when Bill was president. And did policies have something to do with that? I would argue that they did."
Really? Were the Clinton years, statistically, 100 times better than the Reagan years? A reader suggested we check out this claim, so we did.
The comparison is actually pretty fair. Both presidents entered office during a weak economic time and exited before the economy went into a downturn.
We’ll analyze employment first, and then poverty. We looked at two different date ranges, each of which could plausibly be defined as the duration of their presidency. One was 1980 through 1988 for Reagan and 1992 to 2000 for Clinton. The other was 1981 through 1989 for Reagan and 1993 through 2001 for Clinton. For simplicity, we’ll only write below about one option -- the latter one. The patterns are broadly similar regardless of what range of years you use.
For job creation, we looked at the two most common yardsticks for employment tracked by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics -- total nonfarm employment, and the unemployment rate. For consistency, we used January’s monthly figures for each year.
During the eight years under Reagan, the number of employed people went up by 16.1 million, or an increase of 18 percent over the eight-year period.
During the eight years under Clinton, the number of employed people went up by 22.9 million, or an increase of 21 percent over the eight-year period.
So while both presidents did well, the number of employed people rose faster under Clinton, both in raw numbers and by percentage.
What about the unemployment rate? Under Reagan, it fell from 7.5 percent to 5.4 percent -- a drop of 2.1 percentage points. Under Clinton, it fell from 7.3 percent to 4.2 percent -- a drop of 3.1 percentage points.
So here, too, both presidents chalked up good marks over eight years, but Clinton’s record on job creation over Reagan was modestly superior.
For poverty, we looked at figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which has tracked poverty figures for decades. We looked at both raw numbers of people in poverty and the poverty rate.
During the eight years under Reagan, the number of Americans in poverty declined by 294,000, or a drop in raw numbers of about 1 percent.
During the eight years under Clinton, the number of Americans in poverty declined by 6.5 million, or a drop in raw numbers of about 17 percent.
So both presidents oversaw a decline in the raw numbers of people in poverty, but the decline was bigger under Clinton.
Next, we looked at the poverty rate -- the percent of all Americans who are impoverished.
During the eight years under Reagan, the poverty rate fell from 14 percent to 12.8 percent, or a decline of 1.2 percentage points.
During the eight years under Clinton, the poverty rate fell from 15.1 percent to 11.7 percent, or a decline of 3.4 percentage points.
So, once again, the poverty rate declined under both presidents, but the decline was bigger under Clinton.
Was the improvement ‘a hundred times’ better under Clinton?
Put it all together and it’s a vast exaggeration to say Clinton’s record is 100 times better than Reagan’s. Even allowing for some over-enthusiasm on Clinton’s part, the differences are fairly modest.
The biggest gap comes from the percentage decrease in impoverished Americans. The decline in raw numbers under Clinton was 17 times greater than under Reagan. But the other metrics are closer. The poverty rate fell close to three times faster under Clinton; the unemployment rate fell 50 percent faster under Clinton; and the number of employed Americans rose 17 percent faster under Clinton.
We did not hear back from Clinton’s camp. However, we would be skeptical of the argument that her claim was simply a harmless exaggeration for rhetorical effect. She posits a massive difference in economic improvement under Clinton as opposed to Reagan. In reality, both saw notable improvements, even though Clinton’s were stronger across the board.
We also reviewed the video of the interview and didn’t detect any obvious sign that Clinton said it facetiously.
Clinton said the number of jobs created and people lifted out of poverty during Bill Clinton’s presidency was "a hundred times" what it was under President Ronald Reagan.
Clinton’s record does outpace Reagan’s on the four statistical measures we looked at. But the differences are not like night and day, as her phrasing claims. Both presidents saw improvements, with Clinton’s being incrementally better -- not 100 times better. We rate the claim False.
Hillary Clinton, interview on PBS’ The Charlie Rose Show, July 17, 2014 (transcript accessed via Nexis)
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey (main index page), accessed July 21, 2014
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (main index page), accessed July 21, 2014
U.S. Census Bureau, "Table 2. Poverty Status of People by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1959 to 2009," accessed July 21, 2014
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, economist at George Washington University, July 21, 2014
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