Opinion: Columnists

The jobs numbers: Sadly, nothing to be excited about

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, the economy added 114,000 jobs last month, and unemployment is now at 7.8 percent. The public excitement triggered by that latter number tells you a lot about how low our expectations are about the economy.

BLS data shows that there are still 61,000 fewer people employed today than in January 2009. This is disconcerting to say the least and tells you how slow this recovery has been. Also, while the unemployment rate for most of the work force is 7.1 percent, youth unemployment is 15.7 percent. Also, as Keith Hall, my colleague at the Mercatus Center and former commissioner of the BLS, explained last week, "Those lucky enough to get a job but unlucky enough to graduate during a recession will take a 9 percent hit on pay right off the bat. It usually takes as long as a decade to climb out of that hole."

It gets worse: Several indicators point to the fact that these unemployment figures understate the severity of the situation. For instance, a large share of the drop in the unemployment rate is due to the fact that in September a massive number of people looking for full-time employment have settled for part-time jobs to survive until the economy recovers. In September, there was an increase of 582,000 in the number of workers employed in part-time jobs. In other words, more people are underemployed.

What's more, some of the improvement in employment is a purely seasonal effect due to teachers going back to school. After the numbers came out on Friday, Hall noted that "although job growth over the prior two months was revised up by 126,000, job growth in the private sector was revised down by 4,000 as all of the upward revision was in government." He adds in an email to me: "Let me also point out that the employment series underlying the UR is very volatile. It showed a gain of 872,000 jobs, but it also showed a loss of 314,000 jobs in July and August combined."

Further signs that the job market is in poor shape is the population-to-employment ratio -- the share of the working-age population that has a job. Not surprisingly, the share of working-age Americans who had jobs collapsed during the financial crisis, dropping from slightly more than 63 percent to a low of 58.2 percent. However, three years into the so-called recovery, that number has barely improved and now stands at 58.3 percent. Hall calculated that with the working-age population growing by 180,000 every month, the economy would need to add at least 130,000 new jobs monthly for the situation to stabilize. A true recovery, however, would require at least an addition of 250,000 new jobs each month.

The bottom line is that we can only rejoice that 114,000 who didn't have a job in August now have one, but it's too soon to crack open the Champagne.

Examiner Contributor Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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