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On Wednesday 11 Jan 2017, US President-elect Donald Trump claimed in a press conference that:

There will be a major border tax on these companies that are leaving and getting away with murder. And if our politicians had what it takes, they would have done this years ago. And you’d have millions more workers right now in the United States that are — 96 million really wanting a job and they can’t get. You know that story. The real number — that’s the real number.

Full Context: Donald Trump’s News Conference: Full Transcript and Video, The New York Times, January 11 2017

Are there 96 million people wanting jobs in the USA?

  • 17
    Think about it, this would mean roughly 1 in 3 people wants to be employed but isn't. You would think you would notice that, no? – Alexander Jan 15 '17 at 0:18
  • 6
    ...including children of all ages. – Russell Borogove Jan 15 '17 at 16:36
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Short Answer

No, this is not accurate. While there are about 96 million people not in the labor force, this includes

  • retirees who say they do not want a job,
  • stay at home moms and dads who say they do not want a job,
  • high school juniors and seniors who say they do not want a job,
  • college students who say they do not want a job,
  • those with disabilities or health issues who say they do not want a job or that their disability makes it impossible for them to do any work,

and similar groups. Only about 5.5 million people from that pool have indicated that they "want a job now". The 96 million also does not include the 7.5 million that are classified as "unemployed" (do not have a job and are actively looking for work).

A better estimate for "workers in the US who want a job and can't get one" would be 13 million. (If we also include those who have a part-time job and want a full-time job but can't get one (using the U6 metric), this would bring the number to about 18.3 million.)

Long Answer

From the Bureau of Labor Statistics table on "Persons not in the labor force" 5:

Table: Persons not in the labor force by desire and availability for work, age, and sex

  • 95,774,000 persons are not in the labor force1 as of December 2016.
  • Of those, 5,449,000 said 4 that they "want a job now".
  • 90,325,000 either said 4 they "do not want a job now", or they were not asked if they want a job now.3

In addition, another 7.5 million (who are not part of that group of 96 million) are separately classified as unemployed 2.

The data above is from the Current Population Survey, which is conducted by the United States Census Bureau. The questionnaire they use is available here. The data is also publicly available, so you are free to verify this analysis yourself, and to look more closely at the demographics of those in various groups.

The Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the CPS asks those categorized as "not in the labor force"1 for the main reason they are not working. These were the reasons given in 2004 and 2014:

Reason for not working or looking for work

(The bottom part of the table, which I have truncated in the screenshot, further breaks down the total into subgroups by age and gender.)

Most people in this category say they do not work because they are retired, ill or disabled, have home responsibilities, or are in school; a smaller number give other reasons, including being unable to find a job. (Note that this table is about the total "not in labor force" group, including the "want a job" subset.) More details are available here. (An analysis published in the Washington Post looks at the demographics of those not in the labor force for 2015.)


1 The BLS definition of labor force:

The labor force is the sum of employed and unemployed persons. The labor force participation rate is the labor force as a percent of the civilian noninstitutional population

and of those not in the labor force as:

Persons who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force. This category includes retired persons, students, those taking care of children or other family members, and others who are neither working nor seeking work.

2 The unemployed group includes the following:

Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work. Persons who were not working and were waiting to be recalled to a job from which they had been temporarily laid off are also included as unemployed.

3 Regarding those "not asked if they want a job now", see the CPS site:

The computerized questionnaire for just the labor force portion of a CPS interview consists of more than 200 questions. However, complex skip patterns using the responses to several questions insure respondents are asked only a very small set of questions about themselves.

Those skip patterns can lead to some people not being asked if they want a job. The Interviewing Manual clarifies further:

In some of the questions that appear at the beginning of the labor force section you can select the answer categories "Disabled" or "Unable to work" when respondents volunteer this information. If one of these is provided, a probe follows to determine whether to skip or ask detailed questions about labor force activities.

In order for a person to skip the labor force questions, a disability must be so severe that it completely incapacitates the individual and prevents him/her from doing any kind of work for at least the next 6 months (not just the type of work of the last job).

...

For Unable to work to be used, the conditions listed under disabled must be met; that is, the person's medical condition prevents him/her from doing any kind of work, not just the type of work at his/her last job, for the next 6 months.

So, for example, early in the questionnaire a respondent might indicate that they are disabled in response to a question like the following:

(THE WEEK BEFORE LAST/LAST WEEK), did (name/you) do ANY work for (pay/either pay or profit)?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Retired
  4. Disabled
  5. Unable to work

In that case, they would then be asked:

Does (your/his/her) disability continue to prevent (you/he/she) from doing any kind of work for the next 6 months (or working in the family business)?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Did not have a disability last month

and if they say "yes", they are not asked all of the labor force questions. These respondents will still be included in the "do not want a job now" group even if they have not been asked whether or not they want a job now.

4 I write "X persons said..." for lack of better not-awkward way to phrase it - the CPS does not survey every person in the entire population. Rather, I mean that "Respondents representing X persons said..." See Technical Documentation for further details.

5 Is the "not in the labor force" group what Trump is referring to? He did not give a source, but he has on many occasions referred to this metric as one he appears to consider a very important economic indicator.

For example, he has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for low labor force participation rates, e.g. in this tweet:

The new unemployment numbers are terrible. 522,000 more people are out of the labor force to 88,419,000.

and this tweet:

Welcome to the @BarackObama recovery--the labor force participation rate is at a NEW 30 year low of 64.3%

and on his website, the first four "Key Issues" he identifies for the economy are related to labor force participation:

​KEY ISSUES

  • Over the last seven years, 14 million more people have left the labor force.
  • The lowest labor force participation rate since the 1970s.
  • 1 in 5 American households do not have a single family member in the labor force.
  • 23.7 million Americans in their prime-earning years [ages 25-54] are out of the labor force – an increase of 1.8 million over the last seven years.

and in speeches, he said things like:

Fifty-eight percent of African-American youth are either outside the labor force or not employed. One in five American households do not have a single member in the labor force. These are the real unemployment numbers.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sklivvz Jan 12 '17 at 22:52

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