Pence paints a vibrant economic picture, but the numbers don’t match

Talk about a comeback obscures pervasive pandemic job losses

Factory worker via Upsplash
Factory worker via Upsplash

Vice President Mike Pence got a friendly reception at a Walworth County factory on Wednesday, where he poked fun at the Democratic National Convention in its third day and boasted of numbers that depict an economy “roaring back” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vice President of the United States Mike Pence speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)
Vice President of the United States Mike Pence speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) (photo by Gage Skidmore)

Pence mocked the DNC organizers for forgoing an in-person convention, and Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden for staying home in Delaware to take part virtually.

He was silent, however, on the reason for those decisions: the still-rampant spread of COVID-19 and the Democrats’ desire to avoid the risk of exposure that would likely be inevitable in a crowded convention — something Democratic speakers emphasized all week was the result of the inaction and erratic response by President Donald Trump to the pandemic.

Pence’s assertions about the administration’s economic performance before the pandemic set in this past winter echoed those Trump has often made on the stump.

He repeated a number that Trump has settled on — that the economy created more than 7 million jobs in those first three years. The number is within striking distance of reality, depending on the time frame used, but over-reaches.

For a direct comparison from Jan. 1, 2017 to Jan. 1, 2020 — the first three years of Trump’s presidency — the number of jobs increased in the U.S. by 6.6 million, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That is a million and a half fewer than the 8 million jobs that the St. Louis Fed database shows were created from Jan. 1 2014 to Jan. 1. 2017 — President Barack Obama’s last three years in office.

Pence went on to credit the Trump administration with creating a half-million U.S. manufacturing jobs — a number also supported by the St. Louis Fed — then added: “That includes 39,000 manufacturing jobs right here in the Badger State.”

That number is nowhere found in Wisconsin’s own jobs data, which indicates the state gained about 36,000 jobs in all categories from 2017 through 2019, while manufacturing jobs rose by 17,000 in that period.

The loss of 22 million jobs in the pandemic got just a passing mention, so Pence could set up his next assertion: “We’ve actually already added more than 9 million jobs back to the American economy. We’ve added more jobs back to this economy in three months than Joe Biden and Barack Obama added to our economy in eight years.”

“This is ridiculous,” says Tim Smeeding of the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — with those gains minimizing “the massive losses — the huge numbers on unemployment insurance and the distribution of losses.”

Nationwide, 32% of workers who are paid $14 an hour or less lost their jobs in April, according to data from the Current Population Survey; their unemployment rate was still 20% in June. By contrast, 9% of people in the $20-$32-an-hour were unemployed in April and 5% in June.

Head shot of Tamarine Cornelius of Kids Forward
Tamarine Cornelius of Kids Forward

The 9 million jobs that Pence boasted of are “less than half of what was lost earlier in the spring,” says Tamarine Cornelius, budget analyst for the Wisconsin Budget Project and its sponsor, Kids Forward. “The country is still 11 million jobs in the hole compared to where we were in March. Taking credit for these jobs is like digging a huge hole, throwing a couple of shovelfuls of dirt back in, and claiming you made a mountain.”

Pence also ignored what economists have widely agreed is a sluggish return after the jobs collapse in March and April — sluggish, inevitably, because while many states have reopened faster than public health experts had advised, consumers remain conflicted about returning to usual patterns of buying and working that would likely further encourage community spread.

“Our economy is beginning to come back — 93% of the total number of employed people in Wisconsin before the pandemic are back to work,” Pence said.  

The vice president cited no source for that number. Available data for the state — which only goes through June — shows it to be wildly off.

In Wisconsin we lost about 450,000 jobs between March and April, and have since made up 176,000 jobs,” Cornelius says. “We are still 274,000 jobs in the hole compared to March” — regaining just 39%.

“President Trump and Vice President Pence’s inaction and failure of leadership during the coronavirus pandemic crashed our economy to record lows, put millions of Americans at risk of infection, and put millions of Americans out of work,” Stephanie Bloomingdale, President of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, told the Wisconsin Examiner. “Anyone living in the real world right now can tell you it’s tough out there. Mike Pence must be living in an alternate universe to be praising our economy when a whopping 57.3 million workers have filed for unemployment over the past 22 weeks.” 

In a press call organized by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin earlier on Wednesday, participants offered a sharply different view of the state’s economy.

Sen. Janet Bewley Official legislative headshot
Sen. Janet Bewley

State Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), who is the leader for Senate Democrats, observed that Trump’s import tariffs on products from China prompted retaliatory measures in Wisconsin exports, which “undermined our farms and small manufacturers.” Federal bailouts to compensate farmers for their losses benefited large corporate farms at the expense of smaller ones, she added.

“We’ve lost over 2,000 dairy farms here in the state of Wisconsin since 2016,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. Farm bankruptcies are setting records in parts of the state and threatening crop production due to “devastating issues for the dairy industry.”

Retired United Auto Workers union leader John Drew recalled that early in Obama’s first term, Congress took up legislation providing government help to rescue the automakers General Motors and Chrysler. Pence was a congressman from Indiana at the time.

“He voted against the government rescue of GM and Chrysler, which saved hundreds of thousands of jobs and secured the pensions of tens of thousands of Chrysler and GM retirees in Wisconsin,” Drew said.

Drew rose from the assembly line at the American Motors, later Chrysler, plant in Kenosha to be president of the UAW local there before going to work for the national union and assisting locals around the state as they negotiated contracts with their employers.

The workers he met going from factory to factory wanted “straight talk” from their employers and their political leaders, he said.

“They didn’t want the companies they worked for or politicians to lie to them,” said Drew. “And for the last four years, Donald Trump and Mike Pence have lied to us about everything — in particular about how much they care about the American worker.”