Why the Government's Unemployment Rate is Dangerously Deceptive -- And the Dark Reality it Hides

I'm here to confirm everyone's gut sense that the way the government measures unemployment is a lie, and it matters.

The latest statistics compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate the unemployment rate is 8.9 percent and the economy added 192,000 jobs in February. Yes, that’s better than a year ago when the rate peaked at 10.4 percent and we lost 35,000 jobs.

But there are two big problems with those numbers:

First let’s look more closely at the 192,000 new jobs that were created last month. It’s seems like a good looking number – like filling up two big football stadiums with people and giving them all jobs. But not quite. We need about 100,000 new jobs a month just to keep up with population growth. That means we can only move toward full employment if the economy creates many more than 100,000 new jobs a month. So in effect, one of those football stadiums each month is mostly filled with young people just coming into the labor force. And the other football stadium in February seats the 92,000 unemployed folks who actually found new jobs.

The pathetic pace of job creation

Since November when jobs growth started again, the economy has added an average of 136,000 jobs a month. Take out the 100,000 for new workers and it means we’re gaining ground on full-employment at only 36,000 jobs a month. 

How far do we have to go? Using the most conservative numbers, we’re still down 7.5 million jobs since December 2007, when the Wall Street crash really started wrecking the rest of the economy. Do the math. Divide 7.5 million jobs lost by 36,000 per month of net new job growth and you get a little over 208 months or 17.4 years until we get back to pre-crash levels. That’s an entire generation! And that assumes we won’t have another recession or Wall Street crash. Fat chance.

But the darkest data buried in the BLS statistics, and in numbers the media tends to ignore because they don’t understand them --and they are numbers that are truly frightening-- have to do with the long-term unemployed and the people who have given up looking for work.

When it comes to the long-term unemployed, the recent Wall Street crash is taking us back to Great Depression levels. In 2009, there were 4.5 million in the ranks of the long-term unemployed. That number jumped to 6.4 million in 2010 – that’s 64 football stadiums filled with unemployed workers who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks and who still are actively looking for jobs. The Wall Street Journal reports that as of February there are 4.4 million people who have been out of work for more than an entire year. We haven’t seen anything like this since the 1930s.

And then there are those who have been unemployed so long and have found so few job prospects that they have stopped looking for work altogether. However, these same workers are eager to go back to work if only the jobs were there. The government calls these people “marginally attached to the workforce.” Their ranks number 2.73 million as of February 2011, and they are NOT counted in the official unemployment rate. You want dire proof that the recovery is weak? There are now 203,000 more of these ex-workers than there were a year ago when the “official” unemployment rate peaked!

If we actually counted all these workers, the true unemployment rate would be between 15.9 and 18.1 percent. Imagine what might happen if this more accurate rate became the accepted norm and Washington had to deal with it.

One unforeseen event away from a deeper employment crisis

Notwithstanding the rosy talk about recovery, this is a disaster for the unemployed and perhaps the rest of us as well. It means we’re just one or two unexpected events away from the job numbers heading south (like maybe a sustained oil spike caused by a civil war in Libya which pushes up gas prices, acts as a counter-stimulus and takes down Italy’s economy as well). It certainly means that cutting public sector spending and jobs is just about the dumbest move politicians can make (second only to giving more tax breaks to the rich). It’s also the reason the Fed is pumping so much cash into the economy (called quantitative easing) without fear of causing inflation. In fact, what the Fed fears most is that the jobs crisis will spiral out of control.

So let’s make a sober assessment of where we’re at. We’re still in the midst of a humongous employment crash caused by Wall Street and no one else. It’s going to take an enormous jobs boom to get us back to full employment and it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

But here’s what should worry us the most: In an industrial economy sustained long-term unemployment is truly corrosive to the human spirit. We can’t go back to the farm to support ourselves. Without work, people become deeply disgruntled and politics can turn ugly in a hurry. (The worldwide Depression in the 1930s and the rise of fascism were more than coincidental.) I’m certain that the prolonged jobs crisis, not health-care reform, was the root cause of the rightward march during the midterms. More divisive politics are sure to come if the jobs crisis doesn’t turn around soon.

Tax Wall Street to create the jobs we need

But there’s absolutely no reason why we should sit around and wait for the private sector, ever so slowly, to create the millions of jobs we need right now. In fact, if we had the political will, we could add a million jobs within two months by providing public funding for private contractors to weatherize every home and business in the country. And we could create another few million in less than a year if we provided free tuition at every public university and college in the country. (The virtuous side effects include reducing global warming emissions, lowering the amount of imported oil and making our job seekers more competitive in this global economy.)

How do we pay for all that job creation? That’s the best part. We’d have to stick it to those who got us here. A 50-percent windfall profits tax on Wall Street’s enormous profits and bonuses (all of which stem directly from taxpayer bailouts) would do the trick. Call me old-fashioned, but I think most Americans would find it more than fair to have Wall Street pay for some of the damage it caused, and then use that money to put our people back to work.

Unfortunately, our political establishment has given up on overt government intervention to solve the jobs crisis. They much prefer to rely on fate –via the invisible hand of the marketplace -- to magically create the millions of new jobs we need. But there is an incalculable hidden risk: once we give up on planned collective action to help shape our destiny, we also become subject to fate's fickleness. So by all means let us hope the jobs crisis soon passes. But if we keep hiding the real unemployment numbers, we shouldn't be surprised if this leads to yet another round of enormous profits for the few, and enormous bailouts from the many.


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