Ever since the Reagan-Carter debate, the question asked of all voters continues to be: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Recall the circumstances of what was going on 4 years ago: A freefall caused by frozen credit markets, and a stock market mid-crash. Perhaps the better question — and what polling indicates Americans care about — refers to the more recent trend of the economy. We can explore that in many ways, via employment, income, inflation, etc.

For our purposes — and with all due respect to Jack Welch — let’s have a look at state-by-state Unemployment Rates.

We saw the final Regional & State Unemployment Report from BLS last week that we’ll get to see before November 6 elections. As noted in the report:

“Forty-one states and the District of Columbia recorded unemployment rate decreases, six states posted rate increases, and three states had no change, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia registered unemployment rate decreases from a year earlier, while six states experienced increases. The national jobless rate decreased to 7.8 percent from August and was 1.2 percentage points lower than in September 2011.”

Let’s take a look at how state-by-state unemployment has fared on both fronts:

click for larger table

(Notes on table: Source: FRED (via the fabulous Excel Add-in). First two letters are state abbreviations, “UR” is FRED-speak for Unemployment Rate. Also please note that state rates are not translatable into the national rate.)


Where is the unemployment rate higher than where it stood one year ago? Six states, all in the northeast or mid-atlantic region: Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania. The rates in these six states are also higher – in some cases significantly so – than they were four years ago. (Adding: In NY, CT, NJ, for sure, this has much to do with the ongoing and savage slimming down of the finance industry.)

The Swing States

As to the swing states (does anything else really matter?), let’s filter out the noise (i.e. the solidly blue and red states) and look at them on a stand-alone basis (see also here for a swing-state map):


In this view, only one of nine – New Hampshire (4 electoral votes) – is higher now than it was one year ago, while eight have seen an improving year-over-year trend. Critically, Ohio (18 electoral votes) has seen a significant improvement from 8.6 down to 7.0 on both a year-over-year and inauguration-to-date basis. The only other state with a rate lower than January 2009 is Iowa (6 electoral votes), which has dropped from 6.1 to 5.2; the other seven are still higher than they were four years ago.

The extent to which this data will influence voters will clearly hinge on whether they’re employed or unemployed. I also believe that real income, a direct consequence of gaping labor market slack, is problematic for the incumbent office holder. But, for whatever it’s worth, the trend in statewide unemployment rates does seem to be a tailwind, with one more national number due the Friday before election day.

The challenger asks “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The incumbent has been rephrasing the question to ask “Are you better off now than you were last year?” If you can discern which answer voters think is more important, then you can likely figure out what the outcome of the Presidential election will be.

Category: Data Analysis, Economy, Employment

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

33 Responses to “Are You Better Off Than You Were (1 or 4) Years Ago?”

  1. Christopher says:

    So the only states that have had an increase in UE are solid blue union stronghold states.

    Colour me shocked….

  2. ilsm says:

    The lower 80% are worse off than if Carter had won, as is the rest of the US.

    The lower 80% are not better off since 2009, since no one has reversed tinkle down.

    I prefer Obama to make the next supreme court nominations.

    Tinkle down can continue, but the courts are less likely to turn the clock back 60 years, and corporatism would be less likely to run the supreme court.

  3. Joe Friday says:

    Are you better off now than you were four years ago?

    Eh, is what we have now better than MINUS NINE GDP and losing 850,000 jobs a month ?

    ‘Nuff said.

  4. $5,000,000,000,000 better buy you something.

  5. philipat says:

    There you go again Invictus.

    The question is “Are you better off than you were four years ago” and NOT “Are you employed”? So you have addressed a different question.

    It is, of course, true that if you are now unemployed and were not four years agao, you would certainly not regard yourself as better off, the converse also being the case. It is also true that the best measure of unemployment including underemployment, U-6, has budged only slightly downwards despite spending of over $5 Trillion.

    But the question is addressed to ALL Americans, not just those employed and not just those unemployed. For those employed, the majority, it seems undeniably the case that living standards have declined over this period because incomes have declined yet costs have skrocketed (Education, healthcare, energy, food etc.) So I would have to agree with your Vice President that it is true that the middle class has been “Buried” over the last four years.

    I believe that does answer the right question?

  6. HowardA says:

    Obama can’t be held accountable for 2009, because the economy was in free fall, and the 2009 Federal budget was baked in the cake. Total employment bottomed February 2010 and since then total non farm employment has grown 4.3 million or 3.3%. The Dow Jones average bottomed March 2009 and since then it has grown 101%. During the last 8 years the Republicans were responsible for the economy, from Jan 2002 to Jan 2010, non farm employment DROPPED 1.3 million and the Dow dropped from about 10,000 to 6,000. On a relative basis, you have to say Obama has done pretty well, and things have definitely improved since he assumed responsibility.

  7. GoBigRed says:

    Why do we have to be subjected every four years to this ridiculous 32 year old Republican election smokescreen? I am voting for the next four years, not the last four. The President’s performance is just a piece of the puzzle; why is it assumed that the person running against the President doesn’t count? Just as I have to look at the President’s past, I have to consider the alternative, Mitt Romney’s performance at Bain and his turn at governor are just as important. Do people who believe in this past 4 years determines who you should vote for pick horse races just based on whether one particular horse has been as good in the past few races without considering who they’re running against?

  8. ezrasfund says:

    When thinking about how people were feeling about the economy in 2008 I am reminded of the old adage, “If you jump off an 80 story building you can feel like you’re flying for 79 floors.” After all, didn’t the prominent economist, Dr. Phil Gramm, declare in July 2008 that the economy was fine and we were just a nation of whiners? Yes, people felt fine in 2008 until they hit bottom. While Lehman et al. may have felt it earlier, it took a while for this economic phenomenon to trickle down to Main Street. Try wrapping your mind around the idea that businessman Romney is nostalgic for the good old days of January 2008, when gasoline was $1.86 a gallon. Wasn’t that great?

  9. ezrasfund says:

    Sorry, January 2009, Inauguration Day, is Romney’s benchmark for gas prices.

  10. HowardA says:

    The Columbia Business School should be embarassed to have a dean who is Romney’s chief economic advisor, and who is behind Romney’s proposal to cut the wealthy tax rates by 20%, accompanied by the bogus claim that you could cut unspecified deductions so that the net impact on tax receipts would be Zero. Average itemized deductions for the wealthy are about 13% of AGI. So even if you eliminated ALL itemized deductions (local taxes, charity, mortgage interest) these people would still get about a 7% tax cut. Supporting data here: http://alturl.com/moykp Furthermore, the Mormons’ 10% tithing policy is most likely a factor in Romney’s advocay for lower tax brackets. Nationally, average Charitable Deductions are about 2% of AGI. The tithing requirement increases the effective tax (+contributions) rate for Mormons by about 8 points.

  11. jaymaster says:

    The question isn’t, “Is your state better off than 4 years ago”.

    Or, “Is the country better off than 4 years ago.”

    The question is, “Are YOU better off than 4 years ago?”

    Care to answer that, Invictus?

    I’ll answer it.

    Why, yes, I am.

    I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority. But I’m keeping an open mind.

  12. number2son says:

    Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?

    Yes, but not better off than I was 5 years ago.

  13. louis says:

    The banks would say they are, unless there is something in that derivatives book they missed?

  14. colion says:

    The simple unemployment rate (BLS’s U.3) does not answer the question. Nationally, BLS’s U.6 (unemployed, underemployed and given up looking for employment) is a much better figure. Over the past four years, U.6 has been in a range from about 14.5% to 17.5% and is currently about 14.7%. I don’t know what this figure is for the states but I’ll bet it shows the same trend with roughly the same percentage in one of the U.6 categories. That’s the group you want to look at when you ask whether things are better now relative to anytime during the past four years. To focus on U.3 is the mistake made by MSM and results in an unrealistic conclusion.

  15. MikeG says:

    with all due respect to Jack Welch

    He deserves very little respect.

  16. socaljoe says:

    The difference in employment between now and four years ago is about 4 million workers or 1.3 % of the US population. So, it appears 1.3% may be better off… at least as their employment is concerned.

    For the remaining 98.7%, job creation does not address the question if they are better off than they were 4 years ago.

  17. philipat says:


    I agree. See my post @9;23 above. The problem is that using relevant data, like U-6 makes it difficult for both the MSM AND Invictus to make the Socialist case. So they don’t address it. In any case, the question at hand is NOT unemplyment but living standards for all Americans over the last four or one years, which, again, was obfuscated because the answer is self-evident.

    Disclosure: I am Not a US Citizen but, if I were, I would be Indpendent and would vote for Ron Paul as being the ONLY candidate who would bring about real change. RP could still screw things up for Romney by standing as an independent, thereby giving the election to Obama. RP should be able to extract some influence against this threat (Treasury Secretary???)

  18. ConscienceofaConservative says:

    The municipal bond market currently issues new bonds with coupons of 3% , 4% and5% about in line with coupons of the past year and several years ago with one difference the yield to maturity of these new coupons is considerably lower than that just above 1% on a 7 year AAA offering. Reinvesting rolled over bonds and having to spend all the income received over the past year to purchase the resultant premium bond shows the tax the President and the Federal Reserve have put on savers. So if you are one who does the right thing and saves for the future you clearly are not better off today than you were four years ago before we embarked on ZIRP and Q.E infinity.

  19. mathman says:

    Things aren’t all that good and they’re going to become (decidedly) worse over the next four years (and beyond). It doesn’t matter which of the two corporatists we supposedly elect (a silly notion in itself), the state of the planet is such that civilization is in a bottleneck caused by overpopulation, resource depletion (like potable water and arable land), climate change (that we continue to impact by our use of fossil fuels) with all it’s knock-on effects (like the inability to grow food, sea level rise, an increase in awful diseases via ticks, fleas, rodents, and mosquitos and many more) and social instability due to misdistribution of wealth and rampant poverty.

    Add to that the instability of the global banking system and you can clearly see that we’re not in a very good position.

  20. dougc says:

    Your premise is that the sheeple will make a rational decision and vote their economic interest over their prejudices and life long indoctrination, based upon the last 30 years I find that highly unlikely.
    The mistake that the candidates are making is that they haven’t come up with a catchy jingle”I like Ike” or “4 more years” or a catchy retort “Make my day” or “there you go again”. If they had the morons would be standing in the voters line today.

  21. denim says:

    The crash can be likened to the Titanic crash into the iceberg. At this point survivors are still being plucked out of the freezing water. Some are not sure they are better off, but others are. One thing all are sure of, they won’t sail with that captain and crew again….and probably never will sail with that oceanline again.

  22. ben22 says:

    wouldn’t it be accurate to claim that the majority of people that were working didn’t lose a job in the last 4 years? in which case, ue tells you nothing about being ‘better off”, which is a relative term….I know quite a few salespeople making less this year than they did last year, but their living costs aren’t less….still employed though, as an example.

    This question is all about emotion and perception, using numbers to “prove” it is folly

    past that…..its both amazing and funny that “four years ago”, as in 2008, has become some sort of acceptable benchmark for how well off we are as a country? That was the year of the “worst recession since the Depression” yes?

  23. dsawy says:

    Let’s see:

    - my real estate valuations are down from four years ago… and down from one year ago. Fail.
    - my interest and dividend income continues to crater, thanks to QE-to-infinity and ZIRP. Fail.
    - my neighbors are out of work as a result of the policy against coal and CBM extraction. Fail.
    - because economic activity in coal mining and resource extraction is down over a number of years, and real estate valuations continue to go down, my ad valorem taxes will probably go up in the next year to keep the local budgets balanced. Fail.

    Yea, I’d say that I’m worse off than one or four years ago.

    The trouble is, I don’t see it changing either way. The choice in this election is between a douche and a turd sandwich, to quote South Park. The brutal truth is that the people in DC and the people who want to be in DC are all a bunch of pampered Ivy League assholes who can’t find their heads with both hands.

  24. ami_in_deutschland says:


    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but since Ron Paul is not running as an independent on any state’s ballot — excepting an unprecedented write-in campaign, of course — he has zero chance of directly influencing the outcome of the election. The only way he could still conceivably affect things is by endorsing Gary Johnson, who IS on almost every state’s ballot (on the Libertarian ticket). Don’t hold your breath, however.

  25. b_thunder says:


    - Why are you assuming that a typical American care about the past, but not the future?

    - Do you think Americans are so dumb that they can’t see the real cost of the “improvement” over 2009? (give me a trillion dollars, and i’ll show you a good time!)

    - Do you think that the experience of the Bush years 2001-2009 didn’t teach them anything? Bush borrowed and spent (Medicare part D, tax cuts, rebates, etc) in his 1st term, earning him a 2nd term. 2004 was better than 2001. But it all ended in tears in 2008. Obama, at a cost of $6T +unlimited Fed bailouts made 2012 feel marginally better than 2009. Maybe, just maybe, American people are fearful that all that largesse will cause another crash , like 2008 but magnified 5x? maybe we refuse to be duped twice?

  26. StatArb says:

    For me , personally , YES

    Partner at my firm , income almost at 1%-er vs 5%-er … ( sorry OWS crowd )
    Net worth + 50% ( + 140% since March 2009 ) , mostly on bank shorts

  27. DeDude says:

    @HowardA 10:10PM

    Under Romney’s tax plan Romney would pay much less in tax. Under Obama’s tax plan Obama would pay substantially more in tax. Kind of says it all about who is looking out for who.

  28. DeDude says:

    Reagan was the first to understand that an election is about talking to the average uninformed moron heading for the election box. The question of “better off” has nothing to do with whether you should re-elect the sitting president or the challenger. Yet you will find a lot of people thinking that the question is relevant – and ready to reelect a president if the answer is yes. Things were better at the end of Bush II first term, yet to anybody paying attention, he was clearly about to drive the economy over the cliff with his let em do whatever they want policies. The real question should be the effects of policies likely to be implemented by the sitting president vs those of the challenger. But that would require that Joe six pack put down that six pack and edumacated himself – Reagan realized that is not going to happen.

  29. philipat says:

    @Ami_in Germany

    Thank you and I stand corrected. As you note, I should, of course, have referred to the writr-in option, which RP could have campaigned for right until the end.

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