Update: Click here for the most recent jobs statistics.
On the first Friday of every month, I update the unemployment numbers so that I can compare the unemployment rate under President George W. Bush with the unemployment rate under President Obama at that time. The genesis of this ritual began when I felt compelled to respond to some left-leaning sites that were comparing Obama’s first two years and four months in office with Bush’s last and worst economic year (the above chart shows the most recent incarnation of this narrative).
In September, the private sector added only 104,000 jobs in the thirty-first consecutive month of private sector job growth. This development is somewhat negative news. The country had a net employment gain of only 114,000 total jobs (private and public). Moreover, 114,000 is below the 125,000 jobs needed each month just to keep pace with the growth of the working-age population, which is discouraging.
September is the ninth month in which the overall number of jobs lost/gained during the Obama administration is better than the number lost during the Bush administration. It is also the fifth month since the number of net private sector jobs gained or lost during the Obama administration turned positive. That said, the unemployment rate is still five-tenths of a percentage point worse today than it was during President Bush’s last full month in office, and it is the same as what it was when President Obama first entered office. In other words, the unemployment rate in all 45 months of Obama’s presidency has been higher than that of any single month in President Bush’s 8 years in office.
The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined by three-tenths of a percentage point to 7.8% — the lowest month of unemployment during the Obama presidency. This number remains five-tenths of a percentage point higher than President Bush’s last full month in office in December 2008. It also ends the string of 43 consecutive months in which the unemployment rate has been 8% or higher in the 45th month of the Obama presidency.
That said, the unemployment rate only accounts for the percentage of the unemployed who are actively seeking employment. It does not include people who have given up on finding jobs. The month ended with 873,000 more people employed at the end of September than were employed at the end of August. This figure is nearly 8x the number of nonfarm jobs the government reported were added in September, which is one of the key drivers behind charges that the unemployment figures seem fishy.
The discrepancy between the change in the number of people employed and nonfarm payrolls stems from the fact that households report the employment number, while businesses report nonfarm employment. While these numbers do seem inconsistent, the ratio between the change in employed and the change in nonfarm payrolls has averaged 0.7x since 1948 with a standard deviation of 10.6x. In other words, this ratio is still within one standard deviation of the mean. The only way the administration could game the numbers would be to encourage unemployed union members to lie when people survey them. Such a large conspiracy would be nearly impossible to cover up, so claims that the books have been cooked seem to be a bit overblown.
The civilian labor force increased slower than the number of new employees entering the work force increased. Therefore, the main reason the unemployment rate improved is that the numerator (the number of unemployed Americans) in the unemployment equation decreased by a larger percentage than the denominator increased (the civilian labor force). Put simply, the unemployment rate improved because the number of people employed increased – a very positive development.
The civilian labor force ended September at 155.1 million vs. August’s 154.6 million. 143.0 million people had jobs in September, which was an increase of about 873,000 people from August versus about 418,000 people who joined the labor force.
Both the Bush and Obama presidencies have been marked by a steady decline in the labor force participation rate. The labor force participation rate measures the number of people in the labor force as a percentage of the total working-age population. The labor force participation rate improved by one-tenth of a percentage point from 63.5% in August to 63.6% in September.
Putting the Numbers into Perspective
The employment statistics during President Bush’s period in office continue to look better than those under President Obama’s to date if one puts more emphasis on the overall unemployment rate. However, President Obama’s employment statistics seem better if one looks at total private sector employment. Over President Bush’s tenure, the private sector lost a net 646,000 jobs, assuming that he gets credit for all jobs lost in January 2009 and none for those lost in January 2001. I changed my methodology in response to a left-leaning blogger‘s fair point “that CES estimates represent information reported by survey respondents for their pay periods that include the 12th of the month.” Hence, any subsequent numbers for jobs created near the end of January would likely appear in the February numbers.
If one attributes the first 19 days of January 2009’s job losses to Bush, and the remaining 11 days of job losses to Obama, the private sector shed 339,000 jobs during the Bush administration (the private sector gained a net 147,000 jobs if one attributes all of January 2009’s job numbers to Obama, and all of January 2001’s numbers to Bush). Surprisingly, this number includes the 3.78 million private sector jobs lost in 2008, and an additional 839,000 in 2009 (514,000 if one attributes the first 19 days of January 2009’s job losses to Bush).
In contrast, under President Obama’s administration, the private sector has gained a net 514,000 private sector jobs (a gain of 189,000 if one attributes the remaining 11 days of job losses in January 2009 to Obama, and a loss of 325,000 if one attributes all of January 2009’s losses to him).
Again, the point of this argument is not to assess blame on either administrations’ policy. It simply puts the numbers into perspective.
For each job the private sector cut under George W. Bush, the private sector gained~0.8 jobs under Barack Obama (if one attributes January 2009’s job losses to Obama, the private sector eliminated ~2.2 jobs for every job it created under Bush). The economy would need to destroy 1.16 million private sector jobs for Bush to break even with Obama (not accounting for the 125,000 jobs that the economy must create each month just to keep pace with population growth).
While President Obama has surpassed President Bush on private sector job creation, the unemployment rate has remained persistently high. It will likely continue to remain so as more people enter the labor force as the economy improves, even if the private sector continues to add jobs at similar rates. The country still has a long way to go to restoring full employment and the President is running out of time. According to The New York Times, no sitting President since Franklin Roosevelt has won re-election when unemployment was over 7.2% on election day.
And President Obama is no FDR.