PolitiFact: Economic comparison of Clinton, Reagan greatly exaggerated

This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources, go to www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2014/jul/21/hillary-clinton/hillary-clinton-says-economic-stats-were-100-times/.


The number of jobs created and people lifted out of poverty during Bill Clinton’s presidency was “a hundred times” what it was under President Ronald Reagan.

Hillary Clinton during an interview Thursday on PBS’ “The Charlie Rose Show”

With the nation mired in a long, slow recovery from the Great Recession, the past tends to have a rosy glow. Republicans like to tout the halcyon days of President Ronald Reagan, while Democrats fondly remember the era of President Bill Clinton.

During a recent interview on “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS, Hillary Clinton made clear her economic role model as she continues to weigh a 2016 presidential run.

“If I just were to compare Reagan’s eight years with Bill’s eight years, it’s like night and day in terms of the effects,” Clinton said Thursday. “The number of jobs that were created, the number of people lifted out of poverty, a hundred times more when Bill was president. And did policies have something to do with that? I would argue that they did.”

Really? Were the Clinton years, statistically, 100 times better than the Reagan years? A reader suggested we check out this claim, so we did.

The comparison is actually pretty fair. Both presidents entered office during a weak economic time and exited before the economy went into a downturn.

We’ll analyze employment first, and then poverty. We looked at Reagan’s performance from 1981 through 1989 and Clinton’s from 1993 through 2001.

Job creation

For job creation, we looked at the two most common yardsticks for employment tracked by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics — total nonfarm employment and the unemployment rate. For consistency, we used January’s monthly figures for each year.

During the eight years under Reagan, the number of employed people went up by 16.1 million, or an increase of 18 percent.

During the eight years under Clinton, the number of employed people went up by 22.9 million, or an increase of 21 percent.

So while both presidents did well, the number of employed people rose faster under Clinton, both in raw numbers and by percentage.

What about the unemployment rate? Under Reagan, it fell from 7.5 percent to 5.4 percent — a drop of 2.1 percentage points. Under Clinton, it fell from 7.3 percent to 4.2 percent — a drop of 3.1 percentage points.

So here, too, both presidents chalked up good marks, but Clinton’s record on job creation over Reagan was modestly superior.

Poverty

For poverty, we looked at figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, which has tracked poverty figures for decades.

During the eight years under Reagan, the number of Americans in poverty declined by 294,000, or a drop in raw numbers of about 1 percent.

During the eight years under Clinton, the number of Americans in poverty declined by 6.5 million, or a drop in raw numbers of about 17 percent.

So both presidents oversaw a decline in the raw numbers of people in poverty, but the decline was bigger under Clinton.

Next, we looked at the poverty rate — the percent of all Americans who are impoverished.

During the eight years under Reagan, the poverty rate fell from 14 percent to 12.8 percent, or a decline of 1.2 percentage points.

During the eight years under Clinton, the poverty rate fell from 15.1 percent to 11.7 percent, or a decline of 3.4 percentage points.

So, once again, the poverty rate declined under both presidents, but the decline was bigger under Clinton.

Was the improvement “a hundred times” better under Clinton?

Put it all together and it’s a vast exaggeration to say Clinton’s record is 100 times better than Reagan’s. Even allowing for some overenthusiasm on Hillary Clinton’s part, the differences are fairly modest.

The biggest gap comes from the percentage decrease in impoverished Americans. The decline in raw numbers under Bill Clinton was 17 times greater than under Reagan. But the other metrics are closer. The poverty rate fell close to three times faster under Clinton; the unemployment rate fell 50 percent faster under Clinton; and the number of employed Americans rose 17 percent faster under Clinton.

We did not hear back from Hillary Clinton’s camp. But we would be skeptical of the argument that her claim was simply a harmless exaggeration for rhetorical effect. She posits a massive difference in economic improvement under Bill Clinton as opposed to Reagan. In reality, both saw notable improvements, even though Clinton’s were stronger across the board.

Our ruling

Hillary Clinton said the number of jobs created and people lifted out of poverty during Bill Clinton’s presidency was “a hundred times” what it was under President Ronald Reagan.

Clinton’s record does outpace Reagan’s on the four statistical measures we looked at. But the differences are not like night and day, as Hillary Clinton’s phrasing claims. Both presidents saw improvements, with Bill Clinton’s being incrementally better — not 100 times better. We rate the claim False.