Editorial: Do the math on jobs numbers
When you can’t quite believe what you hear, you might want to go back to the numbers.
There’s nowhere that’s more true than when you look at a government report.
Some of them are straightforward. This budget accounts for so much money in and so much money out. That’s hard to spin.
But then there are jobs reports.
Every administration — governors and presidents, Democrats and Republicans — wants to talk about how many jobs are being created on their watch. They want to highlight how few were created while their predecessors were in charge. The talking points always make it seem like whoever is in charge has wrested the economy from a black pit and closed soup kitchens and bread lines throughout the land.
The problem is that jobs numbers are never that simple. You can have more jobs, but fewer people working. You can have fewer jobs but higher salaries. You can have more businesses opening up but fewer employees. You can have fewer people punching a time clock for reasons that have nothing to do with unemployment.
That makes job calculations really easy to spin. Pick the aspect you want to highlight and you can give a sterling report without actually lying.
But somehow the U.S. Labor Department managed to not spin numbers earlier this year. The department blew them up. Literally.
On Wednesday, the Labor Department revised figures published for March. When the report was first released on April 5, it touted an unexpectedly rosy picture, adding 196,000 jobs. It was practically a boom over a slow February with just 20,000 jobs added.
The revisions tell a very different story. There were actually 501,000 fewer jobs than reported. It was the biggest about-face on a jobs report in 10 years. It moves the dial on how many consecutive months of job growth the U.S. has shown, and that has bearing on where the nation stands as recession fears circle.
Jobs reports are always a word problem. They are algebra, not arithmetic.
But as more alarm bells are ringing about the economy, it is more important than ever to make sure that we can trust the numbers.