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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Christie’s False Part-Timer Claim

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie claims “we’ve had a huge shift from full-time work to part-time work” under President Obama. That’s false.

There was indeed a “huge shift” in the percentage of all employees who work part-time — but the shift began under George W. Bush, coinciding with the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Since then, the part-timer ratio has been trending downward. As of April it was within one-tenth of one percentage point of where it was when Obama first took office. The fact is, under Obama nearly half the effects of the recession on part-time work have been reversed.

Part time workersWe drew up the chart above from Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. They show that when Obama began his first term in January 2009 the percentage of part-timers was 18.6 percent of all employed persons — and the percentage was rising rapidly.

The ratio peaked at 20.1 percent exactly one year later, just before overall job losses bottomed out. That was the highest part-timer ratio since 1968, when BLS began the current series of figures on part-time workers.

From that 2010 peak, however, the part-timer ratio has meandered more or less steadily downward. It reached 18.4 percent in March, and then ticked up to 18.7 percent in April.

From the start of the recession in December 2007 to the part-timer peak the ratio rose by 3.2 percentage points. Since then it has dropped by 1.4 percentage points.

Christie — who hasn’t yet announced that he’s running for president — made his claim May 12 at the University of New Hampshire in a speech denouncing Obama as “the worst economic president since Jimmy Carter” and laying out an economic plan including tax cuts and reductions in federal regulation of business.

Fruit-Salad Economics

Christie supported his part-time work claim with a fruit salad of figures; he cherry-picked some numbers, made apples-to-oranges comparisons of others, and ended with a conclusion that’s a logical lemon. (He made his remarks at 18:33 into the video.)

Christie, May 12: First, this weak recovery has pushed full-time workers into part-time work. Now it’s true that overall employment is higher today than it was at its pre-recession peak in 2007. But if you just take a look under the covers, you see something a lot more troubling. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of full-time — full-time employees — is still 3.2 million below the peak in the third quarter of 2007. The number of part-time workers is higher than it was in that same quarter by over 4 million. So look at what’s happened, what this president has done to our economy. We’ve had a huge shift from full-time work to part-time work.

Blaming the recovery: We’ll start with the claim that “this weak recovery has pushed full-time workers into part-time work.” Actually, as we’ve shown, the pushing came during the recession, not during the recovery that followed.

It’s true that the part-timer ratio hasn’t yet returned to its pre-recession level, and anyone is free to argue that it might have declined faster under a different set of economic policies. But blaming the recovery rather than the recession puts matters backwards.

Full-time workers: Christie said “the number of full-time employees is still 3.2 million below the peak” and cited the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that figure relies on deceptive cherry-picking, using raw, unadjusted, quarter-to-quarter figures. Actually, the number of full-time workers in April was nearly 5 million higher than it was when Obama took office, measured by the seasonally adjusted, monthly figures that economists and journalists prefer.

Christie made an apples-to-oranges comparison when he sought to blame Obama by comparing present full-time employment to where things stood in the July-September quarter of 2007, when George W. Bush was president. Full-time employment was declining for many months before Obama took office in January 2009.

Christie’s use of quarterly rather than monthly figures also had the effect of crediting Obama with job losses in the month of January 2009, when Bush was still president. Obama took office on the 20th, just after BLS had already conducted their January survey.

So the figures Christie cited include a good portion of Bush-era changes, which the governor cites as evidence of  “what this president has done to our economy.” We call that lemon logic, and invalid.

Finally, Christie inappropriately used raw, unadjusted figures, rather than the preferred seasonally adjusted figures. That’s more cherry-picking, and produces a higher number than using the preferred seasonally adjusted figures. It’s deceitful in that it blames Obama for some full-time job losses that were simply due to normal seasonal variations.

Part-time workers: Christie used the same manipulations when he said, “The number of part-time workers is higher than it was in that same quarter by over 4 million.” Actually, the number of part-time workers in April was just 1.4 million more than it was when Obama first took office. And as we’ve mentioned, the ratio of part-time workers to all workers is almost exactly what it was in January 2009.

We should also mention something Christie did not; most part-timers seek out such work. They do so because of childcare problems, family or personal obligations, school or training, retirement or Social Security limits on earnings, and other reasons having nothing to do with the state of the economy.

In April, for example, fewer than 6.6 million said they were working part-time because they couldn’t find full-time work or because business was slow, according to the BLS. But more than 20 million worked part-time for reasons not related to the economy.

The number forced to work part-time for economic reasons surged during 2007 and 2008, then crept up more slowly until peaking in September of 2010. But since then it has come down substantially.

As of April, the number working part-time because of the economy was nearly 2.7 million less than at the peak, and nearly 1.5 million less than when Obama first entered the White House. That’s a shift away from involuntary part-time work, not toward it.

To be sure, there were still 6.6 million people in April who wanted full-time work but couldn’t get it due to the economy, substantially more than the 4.6 million figure at the start of the recession in December 2007. So there is still room for improvement.

But the fact is, the trend in part-time work under Obama has been the opposite of what Christie wants voters to believe it is.

— Brooks Jackson