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In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. State Republicans predicted economic harm if a vote to unionize Volkswagen's car plant in Chattanooga passed. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig) In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. State Republicans predicted economic harm if a vote to unionize Volkswagen's car plant in Chattanooga passed. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

In this Aug. 31, 2017, file photo, workers produce vehicles at Volkswagen's U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. State Republicans predicted economic harm if a vote to unionize Volkswagen's car plant in Chattanooga passed. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Haley BeMiller
By Haley BeMiller February 7, 2020

President Trump scores with claim on number of U.S. workers

If Your Time is short

  • Trump cited raw employment data in a Milwaukee speech to claim U.S. jobs are in better shape than ever
  • Indeed, the 160 million currently employed is a record, since the number of people working has risen with the population
  • But examining jobs as a percentage of the population shows the country was actually at its peak around 2000

President Donald Trump loves to brag about the economy.

Trump frequently points to economic success to make his case for re-election. He did so in his State of the Union address — just as he did in his Jan. 14, 2020 visit to Milwaukee. 

"Very close to 160 million people are now working in the United States," Trump told a crowd of supporters in Milwaukee. "Nobody's ever even come close to that number."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks a range of data including jobs, unemployment and the number of people working. Trump’s statement focused on one such tool to measure the economy — but it’s one that doesn’t consider changes to the population over time.

How does the president’s claim rate?

Breaking down employment numbers

Trump claimed nearly 160 million people are working in the United States.

When asked to back up the claim, Trump’s campaign pointed to data from the BLS’ Current Population Survey, also known as the household survey.

The survey, best known for producing the national unemployment rate, samples households every month to provide a snapshot of the labor force at that time.

The campaign specifically cited the seasonally adjusted version of the survey, which controls for changes in the market throughout the year based on seasonal events and does not show annual averages. According to that measure, roughly 158.8 million people were working in December.

By comparison, the unadjusted data show 158.5 million people working in December, with a 2019 average of 157.5 million. 

"Just to note, this is different from the number of jobs added (nonfarm payroll)," Trump aide Zach Parkinson said in an email. "The BLS breaks down that difference here, but the short story is the employment level counts people with jobs, while nonfarm payroll counts jobs. Someone with two jobs would be counted once in the employment level, but twice in nonfarm jobs, so employment level is the better measure for seeing how many people are working."

The household survey also includes categories of workers not counted in other BLS measures, such as those who are self-employed and work in agriculture. 

The Trump campaign is largely correct about the difference between the household survey and the Bureau’s other tool, known as the Current Employment Statistics survey, or payroll survey. 

Both occur monthly, but the payroll survey samples businesses to determine how many jobs are on their payroll. Because this survey counts jobs, not people, someone who works at two different places will be counted twice, said Nicholas Jolly, an associate professor of economics at Marquette University.

That survey tallied nearly 152.4 million jobs in December 2019 when seasonally adjusted.

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Context is key

When Trump said nearly 160 million people are working in the United States, he added "nobody's ever even come close to that number."

The implication here is that employment is better than it’s ever been. But the number Trump cites to support that claim isn’t the only — or the best — way to analyze it. 

The U.S. population and size of the labor force have grown over time, with both at their own peak.

"If you look at the number of employed individuals, it is higher than it has ever been," Jolly said. "That makes sense because the civilian labor force is higher than it’s ever been."

According to the BLS, the population of people 16 and over who are not in the Armed Forces or residing in an institution — such as a prison or nursing home — averaged 259.1 million in 2019. Compare that to  101.8 million in 1947 and 189.1 million in 1990.

Indeed, that number has steadily increased over time.

The same can be said for the size of the civilian labor force, which covers people who are either working or actively seeking employment. The average size of the labor force in 2019, unadjusted, was 163.5 million. In 1947, it was 59.3 million.

When assessing the workforce, economists say it’s important to account for the overall population. The BLS has a tool for that: the employment-population ratio. This shows what percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population is employed.

This is where the numbers start to deviate from the trend Trump referenced.

According to unadjusted BLS numbers, 60.8% of the population on average was working in 2019. That percentage has increased gradually since 2010, as the country began to bounce back from the recession.

However, BLS data show that peak employment occurred from 1998 to 2000, when the employment-population ratio sat at around 64%.

The numbers today are trending back that direction, Jolly said, but are not currently at historic highs.

Our rating

Trump said: "Very close to 160 million people are now working in the United States. Nobody's ever even come close to that number."

The president is on point with the numbers, but when you compare the number of people employed against the number in the labor force, the nation is not quite at its peak.

Our definition for Mostly True is "The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information."

That fits here.

Our Sources

Email from Zach Parkinson, Donald J. Trump for President, Jan. 22, 2020.

Seasonally-adjusted employment level, Bureau of Labor Statistics, first accessed Jan. 22, 2020.

Comparing employment from the BLS household and payroll surveys, Bureau of Labor Statistics, first accessed Jan. 22, 2020.

Interview with Noah Williams, professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Center for Research On the Wisconsin Economy, Jan. 27, 2020.

Interview with Nicholas Jolly, associate professor of economics at Marquette University, Jan. 28, 2020.

Recent trends in household and payroll survey employment, Bureau of Labor Statistics, first accessed Jan. 29, 2020.

Email from Nicholas Jolly, associate professor of economics at Marquette University, Jan. 30, 2020.

Civilian noninstitutional population, Bureau of Labor Statistics, first accessed Jan. 30, 2020.

Unadjusted civilian labor force level, Bureau of Labor Statistics, first accessed Jan. 30, 2020.

Unadjusted employment-population ratio, Bureau of Labor Statistics, first accessed Jan. 30, 2020.

Unadjusted employment level, Bureau of Labor Statistics,  first accessed Feb. 4, 2020.

What is seasonal adjustment? Bureau of Labor Statistics, first accessed Feb. 4, 2020.

 

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President Trump scores with claim on number of U.S. workers

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