Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics / by Erin Wade

One of the unfortunate downfalls of social media is the free trade of information that is dubious in terms of its factuality or slant.

This meme is currently floating around on my Facebook feed:

They don't like Obama

To its credit, the posting does actually cite sources at the bottom, which makes it seem more credible. Simply allowing someone else to cite the sources, unfortunately, doesn't do the homework for you. If we were in an academic setting where people could be trusted to some, degree to be forthright with the information they shared and how and why they are sharing it, we might. But Facebook is a morass of fake and misleading information - it's essentially an echo chamber - so we cannot.

And - when one is addressing issues like this, it's important to understand not only whether the numbers are correct, but whether or not the context and framework in which they are presented tells the whole story. Or are they, instead, selected to grind a particular political axe? Or are they somewhere in-between?

To make an example of this, let's look at the Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) as indicated here. To the meme developer's credit, again, the item reported appears to be correct. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) does indicate that the LFPR is down from 2008. The final number in the meme is very slightly off - BLS reports 62.7% for December 2008, while the meme says 62.8%, but we can give the benefit of the doubt and assume they were putting this together in October, which that number would accurately reflect.

But those numbers don't really paint the whole picture. This graph shows the LFPS since 1948, the first year available on the BLS website:

LFPS Since 1948

As can be seen here, labor force participation is down from 2008, as stated. But it's been going down since 1997. What's more, while it accelerated during the Great Recession, as one would expect, the rate of decline appears to have stabilized over the past three years, a fact that doesn't show when you simply post numbers side by side.

It's also appropriate to ask here: What does the Labor Force Participation Rate measure? Although it seems straightforward from the title (I mean, duh, it measures participation in the labor force, right?), I have to admit that I was not certain. But the BLS has a glossary that defines it's terms, and has this to say:

Labor force (Current Population Survey) The labor force includes all persons classified as employed or unemployed in accordance with the definitions contained in this glossary.

Labor force participation rate The labor force as a percent of the civilian noninstitutional population.

So LFPR is a real statistic. Why was it chosen here - it does not seem to be one of the more commonly presented labor statistics (such as unemployment rate)? What is the meme developer trying to imply?

Based upon the overall tenor of the meme, my best guess would be that it is trying to imply that the number of people who want to work, but cannot find work, has increased since 2008. But, based upon the definition above, this doesn't appear to be what the LFPR measures. Rather, there is another statistic, with the considerably less meme friendly title of "(Unadj) Not in Labor Force, Searched For Work and Available, Discouraged Reasons For Not Currently Looking" that seems to be in place to address that.

The BLS Glossary also defines a discouraged worker:

Discouraged workers (Current Population Survey) Persons not in the labor force who want and are available for a job and who have looked for work sometime in the past 12 months (or since the end of their last job if they held one within the past 12 months), but who are not currently looking because they believe there are no jobs available or there are none for which they would qualify.

Based upon this, assuming my best guess is correct, it would seem that a measure of discouraged workers would better get at the effect of the economy on workers than the LFPR. So why isn't that reported here? One suspects that would be because it doesn't fit the story the meme is trying to tell - rate of discouraged workers is down compared to 2008: 642,000 in December 2008 compared to 426,000 in December 2016. As one might expect, it went up sharply during the Great Recession. However, this measure has been improving markedly since the beginning of 2013, as can be seen here:

Discouraged Workers - BLS

(1994 is as far back as the data for this measure is available on the BLS website)

Also and again, why not report unemployment rate in the meme? Perhaps because, according to the BLS, the unemployment rate in December 2008 was 7.3%, and in December 2016 it was 4.7%. Unemployment rose sharply during the Great Recession, but has been declining markedly since, from an end of year (December) high of 9.9% in 2009, as can be seen here:

Unemployment rate - BLS

The takeaway here? This one particular statistic, as reported in this meme, is correct, and appears to be based upon the source cited. The measure chosen, however, appears to be misleading to serve the picture the meme is attempting to portray, purposely portraying a narrow picture. This type of statistical manipulation is unfortunately common, and isn't new, as the saying reflected in the article title will attest. This is why I've run the graphs posted here back as far as they can go - to make the long-term picture of the data clear and available.

Whether the other information indicated in the meme is correct, and whether the measures chosen and the context in which they are presented gives a clear, well rounded picture is uncertain,and appears unlikely, given this example. Caveat Emptor.

In the interest of full disclosure here:

  • I am not an economist, nor do I play one on TV. However, much of my professional work involves data analysis and evaluation, which is why I find memes such as the one presented here so very frustrating. It is frankly worse when the statistics are accurate but presented in a misleading way than when they are false outright.
  • I am a fan of the outgoing president. I am not, however, a political idealist - I'm a pragmatist. That is to say, I am a fan because of what I see in these numbers - those that tell the larger picture.