Now that he’s president, Trump has changed his tune. On Friday, after the Labor Department announced the economy added 235,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent in February, White House press secretary Sean Spicer announced that the president doesn’t think the jobs numbers are bogus anymore.
“I talked to the president prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly: ‘They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now,’” Spicer said.
Then Spicer and people in the White House briefing room laughed.
Trump invested a lot of energy insisting on the phoniness of Labor Department jobs numbers ― one of the many lies he told on his way to the presidency. He often said the numbers had either been manipulated or that they didn’t present a fair picture of the economy. In September 2012, for instance, Trump tweeted that even though the unemployment rate had ticked down to 8.1 percent, the labor market wasn’t in a real recovery “because more people are out of labor force & have stopped looking for work.”
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly pointed to the number of people out of the labor force as evidence that good jobs news is fake and that the “real” unemployment rate could be as high as 42 percent.
And during his address to Congress last week, Trump lamented that “94 million Americans are out of the labor force” ― as though he still believes the jobless rate is in the mid-double digits.
It’s a weird metric for Trump to focus on. That’s because, while the number of people out of the labor force does oscillate from month to month, and while economists do think the number is a little too high, no reasonable person would insist that everyone out of the labor force should be working at some job. The vast majority of them are either retired, disabled, in school or taking care of family members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only people actively looking for work are counted as unemployed.
A stronger job market would bring some people back into the labor force, but a significant amount of the decline in labor force participation owes to the Baby Boom generation heaving into retirement. Even if the rate did improve, the number of people not in the labor force will still be huge.