On Similar Job Market, Administration Has Different Rhetoric

By Eric Morath Features Dow Jones Newswires

New president. Similar job market. Different analysis.

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U.S. employers added a seasonally adjusted 1.1 million jobs during the first six months of 2017, the Labor Department said Friday. That almost exactly matched the first-half job gain in 2016, and is consistent with the yearslong trend of steady job creation pushing down the unemployment rate.

Though the trends haven't changed much, the president and his advisers are describing them differently.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tweeted Friday, "Great news for US workers - 222000 jobs added in June."

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta noted Friday that the unemployment rate has declined by 0.4 percentage point since the president took office in January. "Robust job creation and moderate wage growth has direct impact on American families," he said.

President Donald Trump has embraced the low jobless numbers. On July 2, he tweeted, "Stock Market at all-time high, unemployment at lowest level in years."

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Less than a year ago, as a Republican candidate, he took a starkly different view of jobs numbers.

"One in five American households do not have a single member in the labor force," Mr. Trump said in a August 2016 speech. "These are the real unemployment numbers -- the 5% figure is one of the biggest hoaxes in modern politics."

Labor-force participation now is virtually unchanged from a year ago, and the unemployment rate has edged down further to 4.4% in June, near the lowest level since 2001.

When asked about the president's different tone toward job numbers since he was a candidate, a White House spokesman Friday referred to a comment Mr. Spicer made at a March news conference.

"I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly -- 'They may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now, ' Mr. Spicer said with a smile.

To be sure, it is common for presidents to point to improving employment figures to show their policies are effective. President Barack Obama held a news conference in February 2016 to tout the unemployment rate's fall below 5% for the first time since the recession ended. And many economists say the control any president has over hiring and the economy is typically overstated, and to the degree policies influence the data, it takes years, not months.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a largely independent arm of the Labor Department, compiles the jobs figures. Mr. Trump hasn't yet nominated a new statistics commissioner, the only political appointee in the agency. Mr. Acosta has said maintaining the integrity of economic data is a high priority.

Job growth in the first half of 2017, while only down by 2,000 from 2016, was the smallest gain to start the year since 2010. Still, that hiring maintained last year's pace runs counter to many economists' expectations for a gradual easing in the face of a smaller supply of workers.

The economy added an average of 250,000 jobs a month in 2014, the best pace of job creation since 1999. That came in a year when the unemployment rate was mostly above 6% -- signaling an ample supply of available labor -- and wages were growing at just a 2% annual rate. In the years since, the pace of hiring eased and wage gains modestly improved. But any hiring slowdown has at least temporarily abated this spring. Job creation in the second quarter was stronger than the pace the prior 15 months.

"We've been forecasting a slowdown, but it hasn't materialized," said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West. "Some folks who have been out of the labor market for a long time are starting to get hired."

Mr. Spicer in his tweets Friday shared a headline noting a "Record Number of Americans Employed in June."

That record has been broken every month since May 2014, when the economy recovered all jobs lost during the recession and its aftermath.

Industries where Mr. Trump promised to add jobs have seen mixed progress. Mining employment grew almost 8% in June from a year earlier. Manufacturing employment, however, is nearly flat.

Write to Eric Morath at eric.morath@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 07, 2017 14:47 ET (18:47 GMT)