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Recently, a reader forwarded us a social media meme that accused President Barack Obama of having a worse record on African-American employment than former President Ronald Reagan -- a charge which, if true, would be an embarrassment to the nation’s first black president.
The meme says: "During Obama's first five years as president, black unemployment increased 42 percent. During Reagan's presidency, black unemployment dropped 20 percent." This text has been placed over a photograph of an African-American man wearing a T-shirt that reads, "I need a job."
Is the meme correct? We took a closer look.
We’ll start by noting that on its face, the comparison is odd. It compares Reagan’s full eight-year term to five years under Obama (not even the full six-plus years that Obama has been in office so far). Doing so is problematic because it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. In addition, the meme glosses over the question of how much impact a president has on unemployment among any racial or ethnic group. Their policies are generally considered to have some impact, but joblessness is also affected by factors beyond a president’s control, such as technological change and international economic competition.
That said, the meme also has problems with the data. We’ll start by looking at the parameters the meme used, even though they are of questionable value.
During Reagan’s full term -- January 1981 to January 1989 -- black unemployment fell from 14.6 percent to 11.8 percent. That’s a decline of 2.8 percentage points, or 19 percent. That’s close to what the meme said.
But during Obama’s first five years -- January 2009 to January 2014 -- black unemployment didn’t rise at all, which is what the meme said. Rather, it fell from 12.7 percent to 12.1 -- a decline of 0.6 percentage points, or about 5 percent. The meme’s claim of a 42 percent increase is way off.
Now let’s look at the first five years of each presidency -- a more reasonable comparison to make.
During Reagan’s first five years -- January 1981 to January 1986 -- black unemployment fell from 14.6 percent to 14.5 percent. That’s a decline of 0.1 percentage point, or less than a 1 percent decrease. This is a lot less impressive than the meme’s favored eight-year decline of 20 percent. It’s also less impressive than the 5 percent decline during Obama’s first five years.
If we instead look at Obama’s entire term to date -- January 2009 to April 2015 -- black unemployment fell from 12.7 percent to 9.6 percent. That’s down 3.1 percentage points, or a decrease of 24 percent. That’s a more impressive decline than under Reagan’s entire term.
There are also other ways to compare the two presidents’ records on black unemployment.
• The black unemployment rate peaked at 21.2 percent under Reagan in January 1983, but the peak under Obama was significantly lower -- 16.8 percent in March 2010.
• The low point for black unemployment under Reagan was 11 percent, reached twice in 1988. The low point under Obama is 9.6 percent, which is the current rate. That’s lower than the lowest point under Reagan.
• Under Reagan, black unemployment exceeded its worst level under Obama -- 16.8 percent -- for 26 consecutive months, or more than two years straight.
The meme says that "during Obama's first five years as president, black unemployment increased 42 percent. During Reagan's presidency, black unemployment dropped 20 percent."
This claim is problematic on several levels. It presents a time frame cherry-picked to boost Reagan’s record. It flat-out misrepresents the statistics during Obama’s first five years, when black unemployment actually fell. And it ignores several other measures that show that black unemployment was better in absolute terms under Obama than Reagan. We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
Social media meme forwarded to PolitiFact on May 17, 2015
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey (main index page), accessed May 20, 2015
Email interview with Tara Sinclair, George Washington University economist, May 20, 2015
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