The Unemployment Rate: One Tool, Or "Big Lie"?

Is the unemployment rate a “big lie”? Jim Clifton, CEO of polling service Gallup, says it is, but Fortune’s Chris Matthews says that’s just not true.

In a post for, Clifton recently noted that the headline unemployment number fails to include some major groups, like people working part time who want full-time work, or those who’ve given up looking for a job. “There’s no other way to say this. The official unemployment rate, which cruelly overlooks the suffering of the long-term and often permanently unemployed as well as the depressingly underemployed, amounts to a Big Lie,” he writes.

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But Matthews says it’s more complicated. “Why doesn’t the Labor Department just count all people without a job as unemployed?” he asks. “Because it wants to distinguish between the truly unemployed and those people who are, for instance, retired, or staying home to take care of the house or family while a spouse works. Counting these people as not part of the labor force is more accurate than saying that they are unemployed. In other words, the Labor Department has to make some distinctions to present an accurate portrayal of the labor market.”

Clifton, however, says the headline number doesn’t reflect the way people feel. “I hear all the time that ‘unemployment is greatly reduced, but the people aren’t feeling it.’ When the media, talking heads, the White House and Wall Street start reporting the truth — the percent of Americans in good jobs; jobs that are full time and real — then we will quit wondering why Americans aren’t ‘feeling’ something that doesn’t remotely reflect the reality in their lives. And we will also quit wondering what hollowed out the middle class.”

Matthews, meanwhile, notes that the Labor Department has other broader measures of unemployment, and says Americans know that the headline number isn’t the be-all, end-all. “The unemployment rate isn’t a ‘Big Lie.’ It’s simply one statistic among many that we use to judge the health of the economy,” he writes. “But the American people don’t need government statistics to tell them whether they are employed or if their economic fortunes are rising or falling. You’d think the CEO of a polling company would know that.”