What is the U.S. unemployment rate relative to history? How different presidents stack up

ByJames Dennin

On the campaign trail, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has often suggested that the unemployment rate is much higher than everyone says it is. 

"When you hear 4.9% and 5% unemployment," he said during a victory speech in the New Hampshire primary, "the number's probably 28%, 29%, as high as 35% — in fact, I even heard recently 42%."

Those numbers are all miles away from the latest reading of the U.S. unemployment rate — 5% — which the Bureau of Labor Statistics released on Oct. 7.

It is true there are other ways to measure unemployment that will yield a higher figure. For instance, If you factor in part-time workers who would rather be working full-time and others who have simply given up looking, for instance, the number climbs to 9.7%.

But that doesn't explain the astronomical figures Trump is citing: As Adam Davidson pointed out in the New Yorker, for Trump's unemployment figures to be accurate would essentially require a conspiracy involving thousands of bureaucrats who help prepare the data, as well as all the journalists, politicians, economists and bankers who scour the data each month. 

If you're unfamiliar, unemployment is a measure of the number of people willing and able to work but are unable to find a job.

In recent years, unemployment spiked, in great part because of jobs lost during the recent recession: That's one reason President Barack Obama has seen a high average unemployment rate during his tenure.

History in Pieces/Mic

As you can see in the below chart, however, the current 5% is low on a historical basis — though it is not the lowest rate ever.

Between October 2006 and May 2007, unemployment hovered lower than it stands today — falling as low as 4.4% — until the recession began to take hold in late 2007 and early 2008. 

Under former President Bill Clinton, unemployment was even lower, landing at 4.2% in January 2001 when he left office. 

To be fair, of course, the president's policies are not the only factors influencing the unemployment rate at any given moment in time: Other matters, including recessions, technology, immigration and regulation, have an effect on employment as well — and presidents can inherit problems they did not cause.

Given that the presidential race will end in mere weeks, it's also relevant to look at historical unemployment rates right before elections.

Compared to prior election years, this September's 5% rate is actually relatively low — which could be good for the candidate of the incumbent party, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.