A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

How Many ‘Lost Jobs’ in Illinois?

Republican Bruce Rauner claims in TV ads that Illinois has lost 90,000 jobs in five years under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. But Illinois has lost 3,400 jobs in five years — not 90,000 — by the standard definition of “jobs” used by practically all economists and journalists.

Rauner, a businessman, began airing a Spanish-language TV ad called “Mejor” — the Spanish word for “better” — two days after winning the Republican primary on March 18. The ad is the Spanish version of “Better,” a TV ad that the Rauner campaign aired earlier in the month. The ads portray Illinois as on the decline under Gov. Quinn and promise that Rauner will do better.

Both ads start with the announcer saying, “Five years of Pat Quinn, 90,000 jobs lost.” (“Cinco años con Pat Quinn, 90 mil empleos perdidos.”) The Rauner campaign followed that up with a press release on March 24 that said “Illinois has lost more than 85,000 jobs since Pat Quinn took office,” citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the campaign is using BLS data that are not commonly used to measure jobs gained or lost. Rauner bases his figure on surveys of people in households, rather than on a much larger survey of millions of actual payroll records.

BLS has two sets of monthly employment data: the Local Area Unemployment Statistics program, which is based on the Current Population Survey (commonly known as the household survey), and the Current Employment Statistics program, which is based on payroll surveys of establishments and government agencies (known as the payroll survey). Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Rauner campaign, said the claim is based on the household survey. Quinn took office on Jan. 29, 2009. The household survey data show there were 6,067,701 jobs in January 2009 and 5,982,030 as of January 2014 — a decline of nearly 86,000 jobs.

But the payroll survey — not the household survey — is used by practically all economists, journalists and politicians when measuring jobs. It’s what journalists use when writing stories about job gains or losses and what BLS posts prominently on its website as the prime indicator of job growth or loss. By that measure, Illinois has lost only 3,400 jobs under Quinn, with total nonfarm employment declining from 5,803,600 in January 2009 to 5,800,200 in January 2014.

What’s the difference between household and payroll surveys?

Both are monthly surveys. But the payroll data — technically called “total nonfarm employment, seasonally adjusted” — is projected from payroll records at 144,000 establishments and government agencies at 554,000 work sites nationwide. By contrast, the household survey uses a much smaller sample — about 60,000 households. The household survey is used to calculate the unemployment rate, but the payroll data is “considered to be the more accurate employment indicator,” as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco explains in a Q&A about why the Fed uses payroll data to analyze employment trends.

San Francisco Fed, June 2004: The nonfarm payroll job series is revised annually and is smoother over time than the household survey; it also is considered to be the more accurate employment indicator. Most analysts believe that payroll jobs more closely reflects labor market conditions. For example, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan observed in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives on February 11, 2004:

“I wish I could say the household survey were the more accurate. Everything we’ve looked at suggests that it’s the payroll data which are the series which you have to follow.”

The Illinois Department of Employment Security uses both household and payroll surveys when issuing monthly press releases on the state’s employment situation. It uses the household survey for the unemployment rate and the payroll survey for jobs gained or lost. For example, the department issued a press release on April 18, 2013, reporting that the state lost 17,800 jobs in March 2013 and the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.5 percent. The Rauner campaign responded with a statement on the “monthly job losses” — citing the 17,800 figure that came from the payroll data, even though the campaign is now using the household survey.

Rauner’s larger point about the performance of the state’s economy is accurate. Illinois has lost jobs under Quinn, even though the U.S. has seen a net gain of 3.7 million jobs since January 2009. The state’s unemployment rate is 8.7 percent, up from 8 percent in January 2009, while the U.S. rate has declined from 7.8 percent to 6.7 percent. But the state’s job losses may not be as large as the Rauner campaign claims.

— Eugene Kiely, with Madeleine Stevens