During the robust Reagan jobs recovery in the 1980s, liberals regularly dismissed good news by attributing it to the creation of "McJobs," a term for a low-wage menial position akin to working at a fast-food restaurant. That's why it's interesting now to watch liberals celebrate the September jobs report, in which the headline unemployment figure fell to 7.8 percent. Look below the headline, and the report shows this was largely because of an increase in Americans settling for part-time work when they would rather work full-time.
Once a month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports two main sets of employment numbers. Under one measure, based on a survey of employers, the economy added 114,000 jobs in September, almost exactly as expected. By the other measure, which is based on a smaller survey of households, the economy added an astounding 29-year high of 873,000 jobs -- almost certainly a statistical anomaly, but this number is the one that affects the published unemployment rate.
In any event, a more detailed look at these numbers shows that 572,000 -- or about 67 percent of the reported job gains that contributed to the reduction in the unemployment rate -- came from workers who had to take part-time jobs "for economic reasons." As the BLS puts it, "The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) rose from 8.0 million in August to 8.6 million in September. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job."
This is why a broader measure of unemployment, which takes into account those who were forced to accept inferior jobs, remained flat at 14.7 percent. The report also found that average hourly earnings ticked up just 7 cents, to $23.58. In the 12 months through August, average hourly earnings increased just 1.7 percent, which was just enough to keep up with inflation over that period. (September inflation figures have not yet been released.) And to further confirm the inferior quality of the jobs being filled in the Obama economy, the BLS also published the September data on workers by educational attainment. High school drop-outs were the only group to benefit from a substantial reduction in unemployment among those 25 and older.
During his presidency, Obama has spoken a lot about how his policies would create the "jobs of the future." His campaign has touted the exceptionally modest job gains during the recovery as evidence that things are getting better. But a myopic focus on the headline unemployment number obscures the fact that the middle class has been struggling to find quality jobs as a growing number of Americans settle for lower-paying work.
This isn't just spin from the Romney campaign. Over the summer, the liberal National Employment Law Project released a report that found that lower-wage occupations (such as food preparers, waiters and waitresses and retail salespersons) represented 21 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, but 58 percent of the jobs created during the recovery. By contrast, midwage occupations (such as administrative assistants and construction workers) accounted for 60 percent of the jobs lost in the recession but only 22 percent of the jobs created during the recovery. This study looked at data through the first quarter of this year, so it did not take into account the September jobs report.
In the first presidential debate last week in Denver, Obama called for "a new economic patriotism that says, America does best when the middle class does best." By that measure, America isn't doing well at all under Obama's leadership.