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When the rest of the nation is in economic agony, metropolitan Washington doesn’t feel the pain.
So says Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential candidate and the former governor of Arkansas. Here are his comments during a recent interview with John Fredericks, a Hampton Roads radio talk show host.
"John, you’re close to the Beltway. I don’t have to tell you, it’s the only economy in America that never has a recession," Huckabee said during a call-in interview on the show. "Six out of the 10 richest counties in the United States surround Washington, D.C."
We recently looked at Huckabee’s claim that a half-dozen of the 10 wealthiest counties surround D.C. We rated that as True, based on median household income -- a standard way to measure county-wide affluence.
Since the D.C. area includes Northern Virginia - an economic engine for the rest of the state - we wondered if it’s correct that the capital region has been recession-proof. We emailed the Huckabee campaign three times seeking evidence, but no one replied.
The basic definition of a recession is a "marked slippage" of economic activity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Economists look at a range of things including personal income growth and employment data to determine if there’s been a downturn. One of the most widely cited definitions of a recession is whether there’s been two consecutive quarters of negative growth in gross domestic product, the value of all goods and services produced.
For the Beltway economy, we looked at Washington and 15 surrounding counties - an area on which analysts typically focus when measuring the economic health of the region.
Adam Goldin, an economist at Moody’s Analytics, a company that assesses economic data, told us it’s incorrect to say the D.C. area hasn’t had a recession. The company’s data show the region experienced consecutive quarters of declining GDP during the 2007-09 Great Recession as well in the early 1980s and early 1990s, Goldin said.
"(During) the Great Recession, D.C. was certainly impacted like the rest of the country," Goldin said.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis has tracked the growth of every metro region in the nation since 2001; that’s long enough to examine the D.C. area’s economy amid the Great Recession.
The figures show D.C. regional growth stalled twice. From 2008 to 2009, the value of all goods and services produced in the region fell slightly from $414.6 billion to $414.3 billion - a drop just shy of one-tenth of 1 percent, according to the BEA. By comparison, the U.S. economy declined 2.8 percent between those years.
Output in the D.C. area barely dropped, from $434.5 billion to $434.4 billion, from 2012 to 2013, and the BEA figures list the growth rate then as 0 percent between those years. Although D.C. growth was flat at that time, the U.S. economy grew 1.5 percent from 2012 to 2013.
The figures show D.C.’s recent annual GDP declines have been very light.
"That doesn’t mean there weren’t a couple of really bad quarters in there," said Terry Clower, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.
Clower told us that, contrary to Huckabee’s statement, the D.C. area does experience downturns.
"The presence of the federal government does provide a bit of insulation. It doesn’t prevent us from going into recession," Clower said. "Certainly, we have recessions in this region."
Still, Clower doesn’t completely fault Huckabee, noting that it is true that the D.C. region long has had shallower downturns than other parts of the U.S., due to the presence of the federal government. But he said there’s a flip side to that reality, he said.
"In a time when you start talking about a federal (government) shutdown here, federal employees quit being paid, it affects this area quite a bit," Clower said.
We also spoke to Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of the Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore-based economic consulting group. He said that, beyond GDP data, job creation and retail sales figures also show metro D.C. experienced a downturn during the Great Recession.
Basu said there’s "no question" the D.C. area experiences recessions, but he echoed Clower’s sentiments that its downturns tend to be milder than the rest of the country because of the presence of the federal government and associated spending.
Huckabee said the metropolitan Washington area "never has a recession."
Data from Moody’s Analytics show the region has had consecutive quarters of GDP retraction - a common measure of recession - three times in the past four decades. Three economists said the region has experienced downturns, albeit not as deep as most of the nation.
We rate Huckabee’s claim False.
Mike Huckabee’s comments on the John Fredericks Show, Sept. 24, 2015. (His statement is at just over 10 minutes into audio).
Bureau of Economic Analysis, "Economic growth widespread across metropolitan areas in 2014," Sept. 23, 2015.
National Association of Counties, "2014 county economic tracker," accessed Oct. 15, 2015.
PolitiFact Virginia, "Huckabee says six of the 10 wealthiest counties surround D.C.," Sept. 29, 2015.
Interviews with Terry Clower, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University," Sept. 30 and Oct. 15, 2015.
Email from Terry Clower, Sept. 30, 2015.
Interviews with Anirban Basu, chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, Sept. 25 and Oct. 8 2015.
Interviews with Adam Goldin, economist at Moody’s, Oct. 15-16, 2015.
Email from Adam Goldin, Oct. 15, 2015.
Interview with Alice Rivlin, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Oct. 16, 2015.
Interview with Terry Rephann, regional economist at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, Sept. 30, 2015.
Moody’s Analytics economic forecast for Washington Metropolitan Division’s, September 2015.
The Washington Post, "Recession-proof? Not this town." Sept. 18, 2014.
Center for Regional Analysis, "Update from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis," Sept. 16, 2014.
Wall Street Journal, "More than 800,000 federal employees are furloughed," Oct. 1, 2013.
Bureau of Economic Analysis, "Gross Domestic Product by Metropolitan Area," October 2013.
Bureau of Economic Analysis, "Recession: How is that defined?" March 31, 2008.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, "The NBER’s recession dating procedure," Jan. 7, 2008.
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