CHICAGO — One of the little-known secrets guarded by politicians in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals across the nation is that the unemployment rate – the figure most often cited as the best indicator of a growing or shrinking economy – is really an elaborate fiction that says very little about the true health of an economy.

Contrary to popular belief, the unemployment rate doesn’t actually tell you how many people are not employed or even how many people wish they were employed but aren’t. The unemployment rate is simply the percentage of a state or nation’s economy that isn’t employed and doesn’t fall into one of a number of excluded categories.

For instance, if a person has “given up” looking for work for an established period, he or she is no longer counted as “unemployed.” Neither are the many Americans who are permanently disabled or are retired. These people are simply taken out of the labor force data altogether, thereby excluding them from unemployment rate calculations.

It’s true the nation has experienced some economic growth over the past few years, but the recovery has been not nearly as exceptional as many suggest. The numbers that politicians use to pat themselves on the back for a job well done are often manipulated to give the false impression things are better than they really are.

This issue has been especially problematic throughout much of New England.

In Vermont, lawmakers have been happily touting a not-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate of 3.6 percent for June, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure is down significantly from 2010, when the state’s unemployment rate topped 7 percent.

However, if the same number of people were in the labor force today as there were in July 2010, the unemployment rate would be closer to 6.6 percent.

In Maine, BLS data indicate that the state currently has a not-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, but the state has lost 9,148 people in its NSA labor force since June 2012.

This means that if the same number of people were employed today in Maine as were employed in June 2012, the unemployment rate would be 5.8 percent. In fact, there are fewer people employed in Maine today than there were in June 2013 or June 2014.

In every New England state except Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the unemployment data gives a false impression of the true state of the economy. The number of people in the labor force is falling, which has much to do with an aging population in the region and many people choosing to give up looking for work.

“New England’s politicians are lying about unemployment,” said Brian Perry, a resident of Rumford, Rhode Island, and a former clerk for the law firm Lovett, Schefrin, Harnett. “Once people lose their benefits, they aren’t counted anymore. I don’t care what they say the unemployment rate is. Just try finding a job over the age of 40 in this state – it’s nearly impossible.”

The one state that seems to be experiencing significant economic growth is Massachusetts, which has seen both increases in the labor force and increases in the number of citizens employed since the height of the state’s recession in January 2010, when the NSA unemployment rate was 9.6 percent. The unemployment rate for June is 4.9 percent.

The difficult economic circumstances in the rest of New England are further evidenced by the increase in recipients of various government programs. The most notable example is the growth of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

The average number of people enrolled in the program in Connecticut, for instance, grew by more than 100,000 from 2010 to 2014, even while the unemployment rate fell from 9.3 percent in July 2010 to 5.4 percent in June 2015. The total average number of SNAP recipients in all of New England exploded by more than 277,000 from 2010 to 2014.

The reason federal and state agencies haven’t made the unemployment rate calculation more realistic is the current formula makes incumbent politicians appear to be accomplishing much more than they actually are.

This habit of lying with statistics provides cause for much skepticism toward claims of tremendous growth allegedly occurring in economies throughout the region. New Englanders should dismiss these deceptive numbers and encourage their state and federal representatives to implement pro-growth economic policies that don’t punish success and reward failure.

“We are the ones that are truly struggling, but politicians do not care,” said Perry.