On why I hate television news, and why being ignorant about math is stoopid

I was having a discussion with an e-buddy of mine on the great depression the other day, and I challenged him to find a measure in which the current economic climate was worst than back then. He almost immediately provided me with this link from CBS news: Chronic unemployment worst then Great Depression. There are several things in the article of note, but the key finding is right here:

About 6.2 million Americans, 45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country, have been jobless for more than six months – a higher percentage than during the Great Depression.

(note: CBS has actually chaged their page. Look here to see what the older version said)

Well somewhere back in my dim past, I actually received a degree in History, and while I am no expert on the history of the Great Depression, I can do me a bit of research. So first off, lets see what the unemployment numbers are like for then and now:

Great Depression Unemployment

Today’s Unemployment

As you can see, they are not even close. Unemployment topped out at 24.75% in 1933, while it was 10.6% in January of 2010 (the actual yearly average for 2010 is lower, in the 9.5% range). But rather than going with peak unemployment numbers, lets even them out a bit. To make the argument fair for CBS I’ll use 9% as the current unemployment, while using 17.5% for the depression era unemployment (the average of all of the 1930s).

So lets see here, the current chronic unemployment rate is 45% of those unemployed. That is 45% of 9%, or 4.05% of the total population. That roughly means 4% of the Americans are chronically unemployed, and 5% or Americans are now unemployed, but will likely find work in the by next year.

Now, lets compare that to the Great Depression. The article says the chronic unemployment rate is worst now, than back then. For this to be true, the older chronic rate must be lower then 45% of those unemployed. (Note: the revised article now says the chronic rate was about 31%, so I’ll use that figure). So 31% of 17% were chronically unemployed, which works out to be 5.425% of the population were chronically unemployed. This also means a little over 12% of the population were unemployed but likely to find work in the next year.

So stacking them up we have:

The current situation:
9% unemployed, 4% chronically unemployed.

Great Depression:
17.5% unemployed, 5.4% chronically unemployed.

In what universe is 4% worse than 5.4%? In what universe is 17.5% preferable to 9%? Do you see the problem I have with this? Yes it is true that a chronic unemployment rate of 45% of those unemployed is worse then one of 31%, but as soon as those number are put in the proper context, any claim of being “worse” is flat out ludicrous.

What is “worse” than the initial report, was the fallout from it. The initial report came out on 6/6/11. The very next day websites from all over the political spectrum had linked to the CBS page, and were citing this statistic as fact. (do a google search for “unemployment worse than great depression” and see what I mean) I could find no page saying, “Hey! Wait a minute here,” even though it should be obvious at a glance.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Now there are all kinds of issues with my analysis.  Unemployment data from the 1930s is sketchy, as the government did not start keeping good records for a lot of things until the 1950s. I have no idea how CBS determined that the chronic unemployment rate was at 31% when the government did not collect such data back then. And obviously I’m greatly simplifying a complex problem just to make it easier to show. The fact that I’m even close is pretty obvious as CBS has subsequently changed their article, but there are lots of websites out there repeating the same wrong data, as if it were fact.