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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sanders Overstates Unemployment Rate

Bernie Sanders has repeatedly said 51 percent of young black high school graduates are “unemployed.” That’s wrong. His figure comes from a think tank report on underemployment — which includes not just the unemployed, but also part-time workers who want full time work.

The Vermont senator, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has made youth unemployment a key part of his populist campaign, frequently citing statistics from a June report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

In a recent Vox interview, Sanders referred to the EPI report when asked a question about immigration and whether he supports an open border policy. (Vox interviewed Sanders on July 16, but didn’t publish the interview until July 28.)

Sanders, July 16: You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

He made a similar statement about “unemployed” black high school graduates in an interview on The Ed Show on MSNBC (at the 3:19 mark).

Sanders, July 22: And obviously the other thing that we have to do, Ed, is that when 51 percent of young African-American kids that graduated high school are unemployed, we need a jobs program to put those young people to work.

Sanders also cited the statistic the same way twice in a candidate forum sponsored by Netroots Nation on July 18 and on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on July 12. At the Netroots event, he said the 51 percent of “unemployed” black youths are “in the streets.”

In every case, Sanders misrepresented the data from the EPI report.

The EPI indeed sounds a warning about what it calls a “historical fact:” the job market is traditionally weaker for young adults.

And in a blog post about the report, EPI warns about “astonishing underemployment” rates among minority youths.

EPI, June 8: 51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are underemployed, compared with 36.1 percent of young Hispanic high school grads and 33.8 percent of white high school grads. This means a significant share of young high school graduates in all racial groups either want a job or have a job that does not provide the hours they need.

EPI based its calculations on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ alternative measure of labor underutilization known as the U-6, which is the broadest measure of underemployment. “Our measure of underemployment is the U-6 measure from the BLS, which includes not only unemployed workers but also those who are part-time for economic reasons and those who are marginally attached to the labor force,” the report says.

Specifically, EPI says in a footnote that it used BLS data for high school graduates ages 17 to 20 who are not enrolled in further schooling.

We asked EPI for the unemployment rates for this same class of workers and we were directed to Figure C in a May report called “The Class of 2015.” That chart lists these figures as the unemployment rates for high school graduates age 17 to 20 who are not enrolled in further schooling: black, 29.7 percent; Hispanic, 19.5 percent; white, 17.2 percent. That was as of March 2015.

The unemployment rates, as calculated by EPI, are still high — but not nearly as high as Sanders claims.

We could not verify EPI’s figures. BLS spokesman Gary Steinberg told us the agency does not publish data for the 17 to 20 age group. He referred us to a BLS economist, who provided us links to BLS data for high school graduates ages 16 to 24 years old who are not enrolled in further schooling. In June, the unemployment rate for this age group was 24.8 percent for black people, 16.8 percent for Hispanic people, and 12.6 percent for white people.

The BLS economist also provided us with unpublished data for 16 to 19 year old high school graduates who are no longer in school. The unemployment rate in the second quarter of 2015 stood at 17.2 percent for white people (page 7), 30 percent for black people (page 13), and 17.8 percent for Hispanic people (page 25).

We have no reason to doubt EPI’s figures. It stands to reason that unemployment rates for high school graduates not enrolled in further schooling would be higher for the 17 to 20 year age group than it would be for the 16 to 24 year old group. In a May 2010 report on unemployment among young workers, the Joint Economic Committee said the “unemployment rate of young workers decreases with age and educational attainment.”

But even by EPI’s data, the Vermont senator is wrong.

On occasion, Sanders properly cites the EPI report, as he did at July 6 rally in Maine, where he explained that he was talking about the “real unemployment rate for young people.” (His remarks come at the 21:41 mark.) Earlier in that speech, he defined the “real unemployment rate” as a combination of people who are unemployed, working part-time for economic reasons, and those who have given up looking for work.

Without that caveat, however, Sanders is misrepresenting the data and misleading his audience.

— Eugene Kiely