Yesterday, at the first official White House press briefing, spokesperson Sean Spicer was asked “what is the national unemployment rate?” The answer is 4.7%. But Spicer equivocated, saying there are "several versions" of the unemployment number put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He went on to say that President Donald Trump is “not focused on statistics,” but “if people are doing better off.” His response echoed President Trump’s April 2016 assertion that the unemployment rate is “probably into the twenties if you look at the real number...I wouldn’t be getting the kind of massive crowds that I’m getting if the [5%] number was a real number.”
This isn’t the first time the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has been in the middle of a political controversy about facts. In early 1930, President Herbert Hoover was facing the opposite political problem of President Trump: unemployment in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash was rising fast. Knowing he would face a tough reelection fight in 1932, Hoover convened a press conference citing his own statistics suggesting that employment was actually going up.
Enter Frances Perkins, New York State Industrial Commissioner. Perkins knew Hoover’s stats weren’t from the authoritative Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that they belied the experience of New York, where workers were being laid off. Eighty-seven years ago to the day, she called her own press conference on January 23, 1930 to present New York state’s data on unemployment, which showed job losses across seven industries. As the New York Times reported (p. 11), “Miss Perkins said that her intention in making this statement was to present the truth so that the people of this State would not be deluded as to actual conditions…”
Perkins, who had been appointed by then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, recommended that he convene a national meeting on the unemployment crisis. He did, and it helped propel him to a leadership position among governors and elevated him as a potential challenger to Hoover in the 1932 presidential election. Roosevelt won that race and appointed Perkins as Secretary of Labor, where she became the architect of the New Deal. She also made history as the first female cabinet member.
The nature of truth is a hot topic this week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is no stranger to this kind of controversy, and has been reliably and steadily putting out statistics on national employment since 1915. Frances Perkins is a model for leadership when the stakes are high and facts are being used as political bait: deeply expert, politically bold, and unafraid to speak truth to power. Challenging President Hoover’s flawed numbers was a relatively small act compared to her later achievements enacting social security and unemployment insurance, outlawing child labor, and establishing the minimum wage. But even as State Industrial Commissioner, she had a profound appreciation for the importance of getting the facts right as an essential precondition for sound policy.