Paul LePage and the “47 percent” — crunching the numbers

Gov. Paul LePage. BDN photo by Troy Bennett.

UPDATE (3:53 p.m.): For a look at the response to LePage’s comment, some of which were included in a previous version of this blog post, check out the article posted this afternoon. In the meantime, let’s look at some numbers.

People all over were scratching their heads trying to figure out this statement from Gov. Paul LePage:

“About 47 percent of able-bodied people in the state of Maine don’t work,” said LePage in audio recorded secretly during a Falmouth event where the governor spoke with a group of conservative women. “About 47 percent. It’s really bad.”

The stat was likely cited to bolster LePage’s position that Maine’s welfare system needs a drastic overhaul, but it isn’t supported by official labor statistics.

The thing with comments like these from LePage is that while he doesn’t always hit the nail directly on the head, his comments are often grounded in a real number or statistic.

For example, LePage also told the crowd in Falmouth that the economy in Maine was doing well, as evidenced by the fact that the state was holding about $47 million in surplus. He joked that he was hiding the money from Democrats because if they knew about it, “they’d have it spent by Christmas.”

No such surplus exists, but the number wasn’t pulled from thin air: At the end of the recent budget biennium, the state did have about $58 million more in revenue than was expected. The amount from general fund revenue was $47 million. But that money had already been allocated and spoken for by the time LePage made his comment.

So what are the real numbers here?

The state’s labor force participation rate is just over 65 percent, according to data from the Maine Department of Labor. That figure represents the percent of Mainers over the age of 16 — excluding those in jail, prison or the military — who are working or actively seeking work. That number is about 709,000, according to August data. The rate is calculated by dividing that number by the total number of noninstitionalized, nonmilitary Mainers over the age of 16, which in August was about 1,085,000.

Economists and labor statistic wonks leave out the under-16s because they’re not supposed to be working, and the imprisoned for obvious reasons. Got me so far? OK, good.

That leaves about 35 percent of Mainers who are not in the workforce at all. This includes the so-called “discouraged unemployed,” who have given up looking for work, the retired, the disabled, and people who are just too young to hold down jobs. To be sure, it also includes a number of “able-bodied” people who aren’t working or actively seeking work, though the state has no good stats on that number.

OK, so how did LePage get 47 percent? Obviously I don’t know for sure, but it looks like he or an adviser inadvertently included Maine’s under-16 population — as well as those institutionalized and military folks — in their math.

If you divide the civilian labor force — the roughly 709,000 figure we talked about above — by the state’s total population of 1.329 million, which includes those under 16 years old, you get 53 percent. That would leave 47 percent who are not working or looking for work.

And as stated above, even if the figures were correct, that 47 percent would include not only those who are “able-bodied” and unemployed, but those who are too young (under 16 years old), too old (i.e., retired), or too disabled to work in the first place.

This is where statistics can get even savvy politicians in trouble. It’s easy to get the math right, while getting the conclusion wrong simply by using the wrong inputs. Plus, figures like the “labor force participation rate” include a lot of nuance, and aren’t easily reduced to soundbites. It’s why so many economists and analysts hesitate from being quoted in stories about politics, and why the same people caution against “reading too much” into any one figure or statistic, encouraging the public instead to look at broad trends. 

It’s also why Penn Jillette — one of my favorite pundits, even if I don’t agree with him on every occasion — had this to say during the intro to the “numbers” episode of the wildly irreverent TV show he shared with his partner, Teller: Numbers don’t lie, even if people do.

(Heads up, this clip is for grown-ups only. There are lots of cuss words.)

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.