Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Politics

PolitiFact: Ad's anti-Obama claim garbles workforce data

The statement

Under Barack Obama, the U.S. now has the "lowest workforce since (President Jimmy) Carter."

American Future Fund, in a campaign ad

The ruling

The American Future Fund, a group that advocates "conservative and free-market" principles, has released an advertisement that seeks to compare President Barack Obama to his one-term Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter.

The ad uses the term "workforce," which refers to an absolute number of people who are either employed or are seeking work. Using this statistic, the group's claim is way off, because of the nation's overall population growth during the last three decades as well as the expansion of women in the workforce through the 1990s.

In 1980 and 1981, the size of the civilian labor force was a bit over 100 million. Today, even after a drop due to the most recent recession, it's more than 150 million — a 50 percent increase.

The American Future Fund didn't respond to us for this story, so we can't be entirely sure what they meant.

We wonder if they were referring to a statistic called the civilian labor force participation rate — essentially, the labor force divided by the nation's total population.

By those numbers, the ad isn't far off.

The figure for August 2012 — the most recent month at the point the ad began airing — was 63.5 percent. The last time the rate was as low as 63.5 percent for more than one consecutive month was in 1979, when Carter was president.

However, it's worth noting a few caveats.

First, the rate did dip to 63.5 once during Ronald Reagan's presidency, in September 1981.

Second, if you smooth out monthly volatility, labor force participation rates were close to indistinguishable during the final year of Carter and the first year of Reagan, most of which was a recessionary period. The average labor force participation rate in 1981 under Reagan was only one-tenth of 1 percentage point higher than it was in 1980 under Carter.

So the focus on Carter has a grain of truth, but even there the ad overplays its hand a bit.

That's because economic factors are not the only things that affect the labor force participation rate. The other big one is demographics, particularly the aging of the population.

Because it garbles the facts on a number of fronts, we rate the claim Mostly False.

This has been edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

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