Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said a number of misleading things in his economic policy speech on Monday. He argued that the average American worker would benefit from repealing a tax that only impacts the richest 0.2 percent. He implied that the U.S. spends more on refugees than on infrastructure (the opposite is true), and he repeated the claim that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton is promising to raise taxes on the middle class (she isn’t).
But one claim stood out for its especially blatant falsehood. Trump asserted that the official unemployment rate is “one of the biggest hoaxes in American modern politics.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported last week that the unemployment rate in July was 4.9 percent. This is the number Trump took issue with. Instead, he said that “one in five American households do not have a single member in the labor force,” which constitutes the “real unemployment numbers.”
It’s not the first time that Trump has called the BLS’s numbers into question. Last year, he claimed that the “real unemployment rate is 42 percent,” not the current 4.9 percent.
The BLS, a government statistics agency respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, calculates the unemployment rate each month by looking at everyone who is out of work but actively looking to get a new job, no matter how long the search is taking. The way it measures the health of the job market doesn’t change between presidential administrations and has stayed the same dating back to 1940.
To get anywhere close to Trump’s 42 percent figure, you have to count everyone who’s out of the labor force, or in other words isn’t working, which currently comes to just under 93 million people. But that includes retirees, college students, and stay-at-home parents who don’t actually want a job.
The headline unemployment rate does end up excluding those who have given up their search for a job out of frustration or because they can’t get high enough pay. Additionally, people who are underemployed — working part time when they’d prefer to be full time — are counted as employed. But the BLS reports those numbers as well. The broader measure that takes these people into account is 9.7 percent.
Trump’s latest conspiracy theory about the BLS is bold, but it’s also not completely out of line with mainstream conservative thinking. During the 2012 presidential race, Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators questioned whether the Obama administration was cooking the books to produce positive jobs reports.
Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., is already reviving the jobs report myth, claiming in a recent interview that the Obama administration has “massaged” the numbers to make itself look good.