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Unemployment Rates Dropped in January; Allen West Says No They Didn't

The jobs numbers released yesterday look promising -- the nation's overall unemployment rate dropped from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent in January, and the rate of black unemployment dropped from 15.8 percent to 13.6, the lowest it's been since March 2009.


Still, the last time another president faced unemployment this high was in December 1983, according to Department of Labor archives. An article in Saturday's New York Times presented the political situation like this:
The burst of job growth in January gives President Obama a fresh -- but tricky -- opportunity to revise the grim economic narrative of his presidency while offering Mitt Romney a choice: embrace a new optimism or campaign against a sinking economy even as it shows signs of turning around.
Fortunately, Congressman Allen West has found a third option: Instead of getting caught up in how to spin the numbers, he just says somebody's faking them.

"Can someone tell me how employment in the black community has improved at a rate three times the national average in just a few months??" West wrote on his Facebook. "With numbers like today, urban communities should be well on their way to economic recovery then!"

He also called the numbers "suspicious" and asked if someone was "playing around with the census numbers??"

"Americans need truth," he said. "Not these number games."

Well, West's position as a United States congressman puts him in a unique position to give his constituents some truth about these number games. As of last September, he had around 17 people on his congressional staff -- if he thought the latest numbers smelled funny, he could have had somebody call the Bureau of Labor Statistics or put in a few calls to economists and professors or just looked at a spreadsheet or two himself.

But he didn't do that. He posted a (recklessly punctuated) conspiracy theory to his Facebook page and let his supporters freak out over how Barack Hussein Obama was fudging the numbers so he can get elected again.

Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill tried to check out West's theory with Duke University public policy professor William Darity, who said that there was no evidence to support or deny tampering but that "a one-month drop in the black unemployment rate from 15.8% to 13.6% strikes me as somewhat unprecedented."

Which, oddly enough, seems to sort of support West's theory -- until you actually look at the Department of Labor's numbers. While the drop appears to be the largest in the records we could find going back to 1972, big swings like this happen fairly frequently.

In January's case, a drop of 2.2 percentage points is about a 13.9 percent reduction in unemployment for black Americans. We crunched the numbers and found that monthly swings of greater than 10 percent have happened 14 times since 1994, most recently in May 2008.

Granted, the swing then was upward -- a jump from 8.6 percent to 9.6 percent among blacks, which translates to an 11.6 percent rise -- but it shows that big swings are possible, just like the 16.5 percent rise in black unemployment between October and November 2005.

If we're just looking at significant monthly drops in black unemployment, there have been six since 1994. Last month's 13.9 percent is the largest, followed by December 2005's 13.2 percent decline and July 1997's 12 percent fall. Neither of those, however, happened in a year with a Democratic president running for reelection, so it doesn't appear any of these others were labeled "suspicious."

(While embedding spreadsheets proved to be much more complicated than we'd hoped, all the calculations are in PDF form below.)

Historical Monthly Black Unemployment


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