Why There's a Big Debate on Pres. Obama's Success With American Jobs

November 4th 2016

Danielle DeCourcey

The American public now has the last report on unemployment and jobs before the presidential election. However, not everyone agrees on what it means for the economy and President Barack Obama's legacy.

Employers added 161,000 workers in October and the official unemployment rate declined to 4.9 percent from 5 percent, according to The Labor Department report. 

The numbers may seem straightforward, but the political conversation around them is not. 

Here's why people can take different positions on the same report. 

Unemployment numbers ignore millions of people who aren't considered to be a part of the work force.  People who are retired, students, or people who have stopped looking for a job are not considered to be a part of the work force by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So-called "discouraged workers" aren't counted either. According to the Labor Department, these are people who have looked for jobs in the last 12 months, but aren't currently looking because "they believe there are no jobs available or there are none for which they would qualify." 

FiveThirdyEight' s Ben Casselman explained in February why this matters:

"Ordinarily, that makes sense: People who are retired or who choose to stay home to raise a family aren’t unemployed; they’re just choosing not to work. But the recession messed with the formula: The economy was so bad for so long that millions of jobless workers simply gave up looking for a job, meaning they no longer counted as unemployed. The unemployment rate topped out at 10 percent during the recession, but it would have been higher — possibly a lot higher — if those so-called “discouraged workers” had been included.The economy has improved a lot over the past six years, though, and economists don’t agree about how many people are still stuck on the sidelines of the labor force"

The debate over the real workforce allows people to talk about the unemployment and jobs report in different ways. Democrats can tout declining unemployment, and Republicans can use the work force data to minimize the seemingly positive numbers in the latest job report. 

“The main message is from the payroll report: Jobs are being created and earnings are going up,” Vincent Reinhart, chief economist at Standish Mellon told The New York Times.  But a report that goes “right down the middle of the fairway,” he added, “means you can spin it any way you want.”

RELATED: How You're Being Misled on Unemployment