Here's What Obama's 'Part-Time America' Really Looks Like

The president's critics love this talking point. But since 2010, full-time jobs are up 7.6 million, and part-time jobs have declined by more than 900,000.
Reuters

Like a bad summer-pop earworm, some economic ideas get stuck in our heads for no good reason and refuse to go away.

Take, for example, the remarkably durable myth that Obama has presided over a "part-time economy," where full-time work has been devastated by his relentlessly anti-capitalist policies. The Atlantic has done our best to bust this myth, but there's no killing some summer earworms, and so, like a particularly terrible Top 40 DJ, here comes Mort Zuckerman, spinning the old track on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page.

It's impossible to briefly sum up Zuckerman's argument—"The Full-Time Scandal of Part-Time America"—which is a collage of bad stats and randomly drawn lines of causality. The gist is that the U.S. economy only makes part-time jobs now, and Obamacare is hastening the demise of full-time work.

The easiest way to fact-check the claim that part-time work is rising is to measure Americans working part-time who want to work full time—i.e. "for economic reasons." It turns out that the entire increase in part-time employment happened before Obamacare became a law in 2010. [Y-axis in 1,000s]


This Is 'Part-Time America': I

FRED/BLS

As for the claim that involuntary part-time work is replacing full-time work? I think these two lines tell you all you need to know [Y-axis in 1,000s, again]:


This Is 'Part-Time America': II


Three thoughts for the road:

1) Most people working part-time want to work part-time because they're in school, or they're raising kids, or they consider themselves mostly retired. Don't pay attention to anybody who's using the number of stay-at-home dads and moms to argue that Obamacare is destroying full-time work.

2) Last fall, the Fed produced a useful document explaining that "current levels of part-time work are largely within historical norms, despite increases for selected demographic groups, such as prime-age workers with a high-school degree or less."

3) If you insist on being a pessimist, here's a very smart way to express fear about the future of part-time work, also from the Fed. There are some industries, such as hotels, food service, and retail, that have historically had shorter workweeks and more part-time workers. If those sectors continue to grow faster than the overall economy (because other sectors, like government and manufacturing, are shrinking), then we should expect part-time work to remain elevated. Indeed, the relative strength of those industries today is one reason why part-time work hasn't declined even faster than it has.

 

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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