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FACT CHECK: Romney's women jobs-loss claim paints incomplete picture

In an effort to bolster his sagging poll numbers with female voters, Mitt Romney and his campaign have made this new charge: that women have accounted for 92 percent of the job losses since President Obama took office.

Here’s what Romney said yesterday while campaigning in Delaware:

"There's been some talk about a war on women. The real war on women has been waged by the Obama administration's failure on the economy. Do you know what percentage of job losses during the Obama years of have been casualties of women losing jobs as opposed to men? Do you know how many women, what percent of the job losses were women? 92.3 percent of the job losses during the Obama years have been women who've lost those jobs."

The Romney campaign also held a conference call making this same point. "The number of unemployed women has increased by nearly a million under Barack Obama," surrogate Bay Buchanan said. "Ninety-two percent of the jobs lost since he took office are women."

But First Read contacted the Bureau of Labor Statistics to get to the bottom of this 92 percent charge. The conclusion: The Romney campaign’s figures don’t tell the whole story.

The campaign, in a research document circulated yesterday and on its website, said the numbers come from the “Current Employment Statistics” database at BLS. The document notes that there was a net change of -740,000 nonfarm payroll jobs from January 2009 to March 2012 -- and that women accounted for 683,000 of those jobs.

That is accurate, according to BLS. But Brian Davidson, an economist at BLS, told First Read: “The math they use is correct; the terminology is completely wrong.”

Davidson noted that women actually make up a larger share of the workforce now than they did in Jan. 2008 before the financial meltdown, and since January 2009, it is a statistically insignificant change.

In January 2008, women made up 48.8 percent of the workforce; in January 2009, 49.5 percent; now 49.3 percent.

“Do we still have the same amount of women workers relative to men in the ‘net-change’? Yes we do,” Davidson said.

He added, “It’s like trying to pull a bunny out of a hat, but there’s no bunny inside.”

Independent fact-checkers like Politifact and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker also took on the claim.

Giving the claim a “Mostly False,” Politifact called it “misleading”: “We found that though the numbers are accurate, their reading of them isn’t.”

“One could reasonably argue that January 2009 employment figures are more a result of President George W. Bush’s policies, at least as far as any president can be blamed or credited for private-sector hiring,” Politifact wrote. “We reached out to Gary Steinberg, spokesman for the BLS, for his take on the claim. He pointed out that women’s job losses are high for that period of time because millions of men had already lost their jobs. Women were next. … [I]f you count all those jobs lost beginning in 2007, women account for just 39.7 percent of the total. … There is a small amount of truth to the claim, but it ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.”

The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, begins this way: “[W]e frown on the somewhat arbitrary dividing line of measuring jobs statistics by presidential terms. It is a common journalistic — and political — metric. But restarting the employment clock from the moment the president takes the oath of office doesn’t tell you much about a his performance, especially since it takes time for the new president’s policies to take effect.”

In fact, he writes, “[T]here is less to this stat than meets the eye. … If you start the data in February, then the overall job loss is just 16,000 jobs—while women lost 484,000 jobs. … How could women lose more jobs than the overall total? It’s a function of the dates one picks.”

And notably: “[T]he picture becomes clearer if you start running the data from the date the recession began — December 2007. With that starting point, the total decline in jobs was just over 5 million, with women accounting for nearly 1.8 million of those jobs. Now look what happens when we just look at the past year, March 2011 to March 2012. Men gained nearly 1.9 million jobs while women gained 635,000 jobs.”

*** CORRECTION *** An earlier version of this post noted that the Romney campaign used numbers from January 2009. The campaign has reached out to First Read and notes that it used January 2009 as a "baseline."

"We use January 2009 as the baseline, which means the first month of losses charged to Obama is the decline in February vs. January," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.

*** UPDATE *** Saul also passes along a letter written by its policy director, Lanhee Chen, to dispute the Politifact story (and "Mostly False" rating) that attempted a fact check on a Tweet by Saul referencing the numbers. Chen accuses Politifact of a "failure to focus on the appropriate context."

"First, why should it matter that men had already lost millions of jobs?" Chen wrote. "Was it now women’s 'turn'? Is this part of the President’s conception of “fairness” that he talks about so frequently? If the data showed the opposite (i.e. that women had been disproportionately hurt prior to the President taking office), we imagine you would have used that as an indictment of Ms. Saul by arguing that the trend was inherent to the recession and predated the President."

Chen concluded, "In summary, your piece confirms Ms. Saul’s claim as accurate, and then relies on a direct contradiction with a prior Politifact piece and incorrect claims from two publicly acknowledged Obama supporters (including one Administration official!) as the basis for rating it “Mostly False.”  I hope you will agree that this rating was inappropriate and that the piece does not reflect the journalistic standards to which your organization intends to hold itself.  Please retract the piece and issue a correction as soon as possible."