Conservative media are claiming that unemployed Americans are “lazy” because they supposedly spend too much time “shopping” and not enough time working or looking for work. But the data they cite includes the activities of stay-at-home parents, students, people with disabilities, and retirees who are “not employed.”
On September 8, fringe conservative website CNS News published an article claiming “an unemployed American is more likely to be shopping ... than to be looking for a new job. ” The article ostensibly cited data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), an annual survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). CNS claimed that “only 18.9 percent of Americans who were unemployed” engaged in job searches or job interviews on “an average day.” Meanwhile, according to CNS, 22.5 percent of the “unemployed” engaged in shopping “for items other than groceries” on “an average day.”
Unfortunately, CNS did not link to its internal data or provide methodology for its reporting, leaving readers to take the website's claims at face value.
Digging into the technical notes of the ATUS reveals that the BLS does not categorize individuals as “unemployed,” but rather as “not employed.” This distinction is important, as it includes individuals who fit the classification of being unemployed -- not working but actively looking for work -- as well as individuals who are “not in the labor force” for other reasons, including retirement, educational pursuit, and disability. So-called "discouraged workers," the small percentage of the population who involuntarily leave the labor force due to a lack of opportunity, would also count as “not employed” by ATUS classification.
CNS' insinuation that the so-called “unemployed” spend too much time engaged in non-work activities like “shopping” is based on a fatally skewed statistical error. But that fact has not stopped right-wing media outlets from using CNS' assumptions to fuel their campaign against the unemployed.
On the September 9 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, co-host Bill Hemmer and Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs recited the CNS claims to reveal what Hemmer called “a stunning new picture on the economy.” The two Fox personalities focused heavily on the alleged percentage of unemployed Americans who go shopping during an average day, with Dobbs lamenting that “they are spending their time” engaged in an activity that is not contributing to the economy.
On the September 9 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show, host Rush Limbaugh also alluded to the CNS statistic while claiming “people would rather shop than look for a job.” Limbaugh went on to insult non-working Americans for still finding the time to shop, eat, and watch television while not working:
LIMBAUGH: A majority of the unemployed would rather go shopping than, yeah, unemployed. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Government. Unemployed more likely to go shopping on an average day than look for a job. Why should they? They're all eating. They've all got cellphones. They've all got televisions. They've all got cable, or they all watch television somehow. They'd rather go shopping, on an average day, than look for a job.
Limbaugh claimed to cite the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the aforementioned available government data does not support his allegations.
Fox returned to the faulty CNS data on the September 10 edition of Happening Now during a discussion between co-host Shannon Bream and Fox Business contributor Charles Payne. Bream called the news “an eye-opening look at America's unemployed” before stating that “according to the government's own data, on any given day [the unemployed] are more likely to be shopping than looking for work.” Payne, who has a long history of offensive comments about the working poor and recipients of government benefits, claimed that the shopping anecdote was “nothing surprising” and stood as proof that unemployment insurance makes Americans “lazy” :
PAYNE: Nothing surprising about this. What's surprising is we don't talk about it more. It's really a shame in America we can't have these kind of honest discussions. Because the inference is that people are lazy, that people don't want to get up and go at it. Guess what? These programs do make people lazy. They make people comfortable. They make you want to take a chill pill.
A quick review of actual data from the BLS time-use survey reveals that the “employed” and the “not employed” spend roughly the same amount of time shopping. According to the BLS, individuals classified as “employed” spend 0.72 hours per day, roughly 43 minutes, “purchasing goods and services.” Individuals who are “not employed” spend 0.78 hours per day, roughly 47 minutes, engaged in the same activities.