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Kerry Really Could Produce 10 Million New Jobs. (So Could Bush.)

John Kerry has promised that, if elected, his economic policies will produce 10 million new jobs. Some FactCheck.org subscribers have asked us why we haven’t debunked that claim, given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counted only 8.4 million who were unemployed as of March.

Most recently, “Rich” wrote us saying Kerry’s promise appears to be “irresponsible”:

Rich: Not only would the creation of 10 million jobs eliminate unemployment in the US, but Kerry would have to import workers from other countries . . . In either case, he is leading people on to a promise he cannot keep.

Rich raises a good question. But the fact is that whoever takes office next January 20 — Bush or Kerry — could very well see a 10-million job gain in the next four years. And it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened, as seen from the following table drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Total Nonfarm Employment

There have been four presidential administrations that have seen the total number of payroll jobs in the economy grow by 10 million or more, including both of Bill Clinton’s terms, Ronald Reagan’s second term, and (odd though it may seem given the economic turmoil of the times) Jimmy Carter’s term.

And three of those 10-million-plus gains began with the total number of unemployed workers at or below the current level of 8.4 million. (One other time, during Lyndon Johnson’s term in 1965-69, total employment just missed growing by 10 million jobs starting with a total level of unemployment at just 3.9 million, less than half the current number.)

How can that be? Clearly, the jobs were filled by lots of people who weren’t listed as among the unemployed at the start. Where did the job-takers come from?

Here is a good place to explain who’s counted as “unemployed” and who’s not. Bureau of Labor Statistics officials ask not just whether a person wants a job and doesn’t have one, but also whether that person has actually looked for work at least once during the past four weeks. Only if the answer to the last question is “yes” is that person counted officially as among the unemployed.

In addition, the BLS currently lists nearly 4.9 million persons who say they want a job but haven’t looked for one recently. Add those to the 8.4 million who are counted as unemployed and actively looking for work, and it makes more than 13 million persons theoretically willing to take a job.

And of course, that number represents just a snapshot in time. The population continues to grow. The Census Bureau projects that the number of Americans aged 20 to 64 will grow by nearly 19 million during this decade, which works out to nearly 7.6 million over four years. Not all those working-age people will join the workforce, of course, but better than 75% of those who turn 20 over the next four years will seek work, if historical trends continue. So, figure roughly 5.7 million new jobseekers to add to the 13-million-plus who say they want work already, and we have a pool of 19 million potential takers of new jobs.

These are rough calculations, but enough to show that a 10-million job gain is mathematically possible, with plenty of room for error. So not only has a 10-million job gain been accomplished before — several times — there is every reason to believe it could happen again.

And if it’s possible for Kerry, of course, it’s also possible for Bush. The figures add up the same way regardless of who is in office.