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By Dave Umhoefer February 29, 2012

Reince Priebus says unemployment has been above 8 percent for a record 36 months

When President Barack Obama touched down Feb. 15, 2012, in Milwaukee to tout homegrown manufacturing jobs, Republican Gov. Scott Walker greeted him amiably and praised the trip.

Meanwhile, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, former head of the Wisconsin GOP, aired a long list of grievances timed to the visit.

Unemployment was near the top of the list.

"In February 2009, Obama promised that if he didn't have the economy fixed in three years, then his presidency was ‘going to be a one-term proposition,’ " Priebus wrote in an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's been three years, and few Americans would say the economy is healthy."

He added: "In fact, the national unemployment rate has been above 8 percent for a record 36 months -- even though Obama promised it would be different. He promised his $825 billion stimulus would keep unemployment below 8 percent. But instead of creating jobs, it just created debt."

PolitiFact Florida has rated Mostly False the claim that Obama promised the stimulus bill would cap unemployment at 8 percent.

But what about Priebus’ claim that unemployment has topped 8 percent for a record 36 months?

Asked to back up Priebus’ statement, the RNC pointed to a 2012 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

"The rate of unemployment in the United States has exceeded 8 percent since February 2009, making the past three years the longest stretch of high unemployment in this country since the Great Depression," says the CBO study.

We double-checked it with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the gold standard for unemployment statistics. During that time, monthly unemployment has ranged between 8.3 and 10.0 percent.

But the CBO study added an important qualifier that Priebus left out -- "since the Great Depression."

The Great Depression-era unemployment rates topped 15 percent annually for six straight years, from 1931 to 1936, and never fell below 8.7 percent over 12 years, according to estimates adopted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In four consecutive years unemployment exceeded 20 percent a year.

Those figures were cited by by PolitiFact National when it found False a 2011 Priebus claim that "We have unemployment that rivals the Great Depression."

"Any way you cut it, peak unemployment since the start of the most recent recession, as bad as it has been, remains well under half of the peak it reached during the Great Depression," that PolitiFact item concluded.

There’s a qualifier, though, on the Depression-era data, as the PolitiFact item highlighted -- and this is where Priebus hangs his hat.

There are some dissimilarities between the pre-war unemployment data and the current data.

The earlier method counted those age 14 and up, not 16 and up (the standard that began in 1948). In addition, monthly unemployment statistics -- the measure cited by Priebus before Obama’s visit -- were not kept until 1948 as well. Thus, all the statistics during the Great Depression were on an annual basis.

RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney noted: "In (the current system) this is a record. BLS is the standard for the modern era. There were no definitive records like it during the Great Depression."

Still, PolitiFact National concluded the old and new methods are similar, and the economists it interviewed said comparisons between the two are appropriate as long as the differences are disclosed.

And it’s noteworthy that the government itself has adopted the pre-war unemployment estimates -- the ones that show unemployment rates higher than 15 percent for six years running -- as its own. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has declared those estimates official.

We also talked to Gary Burtless, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

He said while the agency did not collect "official" estimates of the unemployment rate before 1940, the estimates from that earlier time, when combined with "official" figures for 1940 and 1941, suggest "the unemployment rate exceeded 8 percent for a total span of 12 years, 1930-1941."

Even with the data differences, "it is silly to imply that unemployment between 1930 and 1939 was likely to be lower than 8 percent in any of those 10 years," Burtless stated.

Our conclusion

Priebus accurately cites monthly unemployment statistics proving a three-year run of unemployment topping 8 percent under Obama. But it’s a "record" only in the strict sense, because monthly statistics didn’t exist in the 1930s.

His claim ignores the critical fact that Great Depression unemployment rates -- while not kept monthly -- annually were well above the current rates and for a much longer period.

There’s an element of truth in Priebus’ statement because he cited "monthly" statistics, but overall this is misleading.

That is our definition for Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Reince Priebus, Republican National Committee chairman, op-ed piece, "The President has broken many promises," Feb. 14, 2012

Congressional Budget Office, "Understanding and Responding to Persistently High Unemployment," February 2012

Bureau of Labor Statistics, databases on national unemployment, accessed Feb. 22, 2012

Bureau of Labor Statistics, annual unemployment rates, 1940-2010, 2011

Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment Status 14 and Over, 1929-47," published 1948

Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Compensation from before World War I through the Great Depression," January 30, 2003

PolitiFact National, item on Priebus Great Depression claim, June 13, 2011

Email interview with Ryan Mahoney, spokesman, Republican National Committee, Feb. 16, 2012

Telephone interview with Stacey Standish, Bureau of Labor Statistics press officer, Feb. 22, 2012

E-mail interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Feb. 21, 2011

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Reince Priebus says unemployment has been above 8 percent for a record 36 months

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