A couple of weeks ago, the latest monthly jobs report offered great news: The U.S. economy added more than 500,000 jobs in October and the unemployment rate improved to a 19-month low. For those concerned about the strength of the economic recovery, the data created new confidence.
The Republican National Committee, however, didn't quite see it that way. Sure the job the numbers were encouraging, but, the RNC said, the news followed months of "bad jobs reports."
All of which led to an important follow-up question Republicans have been reluctant to answer: "What bad jobs reports?" The Washington Post ran an important piece on this overnight, with a headline that read, "The government dramatically underestimated job growth this summer."
The government sharply underestimated job gains for most of 2021, including four months this summer in which it missed more job growth than at any other time on record. In the most recent four months with revisions, June through September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported it underestimated job growth by a cumulative 626,000 jobs — that's the largest underestimate of any other comparable period, going back to 1979. If those revisions were themselves a jobs report, they'd be an absolute blockbuster.
For those who may be unfamiliar with monthly jobs reports, it's probably worth pausing to explain the process.
On the first Friday of the month, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a report on the previous month's job totals. When these new numbers reach the public, there's a temptation to react to them at face value, but there's a problem: The totals are preliminary, and will be revised.
Under normal economic conditions, these revisions are modest and inconsequential. For example, if an initial assessment from the BLS says there were 150,000 jobs created in a given month, and the revisions conclude that the actual tally was 160,000, no one makes much of a fuss.
But in recent months, the revisions have been dramatic — and all in the same direction.
In June, for example, the preliminary tally under-reported the jobs totals by 112,000. A month later, the initial total under-reported 148,000 jobs. The month after that, it was 248,000 jobs.
All told, we're talking about 626,000 jobs that we didn't know were created until officials retroactively updated initial tallies.
To be sure, there's no reason to suspect anything nefarious. The Labor Department relies on employer surveys, and the system was disrupted by the pandemic and the degree to which they affected businesses. It wasn't that the BLS under-reported the job totals on purpose; it just took more time for the BLS to get the full employment picture.
But there's an unmistakable political dimension to this. Over the summer, President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party received months of negative press — even as early voting was getting underway in Virginia and New Jersey — with headlines about discouraging and disappointing jobs totals.
The Post's report added, "From April to June, polls found that most Americans (51 percent) approved of Biden's handling of the economy, according to an average of polls from Fox, NBC, Quinnipiac and The Post. But as bad economic numbers came out and the national political climate turned south, those numbers fell steadily — in October, just 39 percent approved of Biden's handling of the economy, while 57 percent disapproved."
What the public didn't see was a bunch of news stories saying, "Never mind those bad headlines; we didn't realize until later that the job totals were actually great after all."
Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii added this morning, "I guess I'm not exactly sure why what's happening isn't being characterized as a booming recovery from a worldwide shutdown."
The senator's point is sound: The U.S. economy has already created 5.8 million jobs this year — far above any year in recent memory — and it's currently on pace to finish 2021 with nearly 7 million jobs created this year.
By any fair measure, that's a success story Americans can and should feel good about, headlines and RNC press releases based on incomplete preliminary job totals notwithstanding.