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Grim Job Report Not Showing Full Picture

David Leonhardt and Catherine Rampell, The New York Times
Saturday, 6 Dec 2008 | 11:08 AM ET

As bad as the headline numbers in Friday’s employment report were, they still made the job market look better than it really is.

CNBC.com

The unemployment rate reached its highest point since 1993, and overall employment fell by more than a half million jobs. Yet that was just the beginning. Thanks to the vagaries of the way that the government’s best-known jobs statistics are calculated, they have overlooked many workers who have been deeply affected by the current recession.

The number of people out of the labor force — meaning that they were neither working nor looking for work and that the government did not consider them unemployed — jumped by 637,000 last month, the Labor Department said. The number of part-time workers who said they wanted full-time work — all counted as fully employed — rose by an additional 621,000.

Take these people into account, and the job market may be in its worst condition since the early 1980s. It is still deteriorating rapidly, too.

Already, the share of men older than 20 with jobs was at its lowest point last month since 1983, and very close to the low point of the last 60 years. The share of women with jobs is lower than it was eight years ago, which never happened in previous decades.

Liz Perkins, 24 and the mother of four young children in Colorado Springs, began looking for work in October after she learned that her husband, James, was about to lose his job at a bed-making factory.

But the jobs she found either did not pay enough to cover child care or required her to work overnight. “I can’t do overnight work with four children,” she said. She has since stopped looking for work.

The family has paid its bills by dipping into its savings and borrowing money from relatives. But Ms. Perkins said that unless her husband found a job in the next three months, she feared the family would become homeless.

Even Wall Street economists, whose analysis usually comes shaded in rose, seemed taken aback by the report. Goldman Sachs called the new numbers “horrendous.” Others said “dreadful” and “almost indescribably terrible.” In a note to clients, Morgan Stanley economists wrote, “Quite simply, there was nothing good in this report.” HSBC forecasters said they now expected the Federal Reserve to reduce its benchmark interest rate all the way to zero.

Such language may sound out of step with a jobless rate that, despite its recent rise, remains at 6.7 percent; the rate exceeded 10 percent in the early 1980s. But over the last few decades, the jobless rate has become a significantly less useful measure of the country’s economic health.

That is because far more people than in the past fall into the gray area of the labor market — not having a job and not looking for one, but interested in working. This group includes many former factory workers who have been unable to find new work that pays nearly as well and are unwilling to accept a job that pays much less. Some get by with help from disability payments, while others rely on their spouses’ paychecks.

For much of the last year, the ranks of these labor force dropouts were not changing rapidly, said Thomas Nardone, a Labor Department economist who oversees the collection of the unemployment data. People who had lost their jobs generally began looking for new work. But that changed in November.

Much as many stock market investors threw in the towel in early October, and consumers quickly followed suit by cutting their spending, job seekers seemed to turn darkly pessimistic about the American economy in November. Unless the numbers turn out to have been a one-month blip, large numbers of people seem to have decided that a job search is, for now, futile.

“It’s not only that there’s nothing out there,” said Lorena Garcia, an organizer in Denver for 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a group that helps low-wage women and women who are looking for work. “But it also costs money to job hunt.”

Just how bad is the labor market? Coming up with a measure that is comparable across decades is not easy.

The unemployment rate has been made less meaningful by the long-term rise in dropouts from the labor force. The simple percentage of people without jobs — including retirees, stay-at-home parents and discouraged would-be job seekers — can also be misleading, though. It has dropped in recent decades mainly because of the influx of women into the work force, not because the job market is fundamentally healthier than it used to be.

The Labor Department does publish an alternate measure of unemployment, which counts part-time workers who want full-time work, as well as anyone who has looked for work in the last year. (The official rate includes only people who told a government surveyor that they had looked in the last four weeks.)

This alternate measure rose to 12.5 percent in November. That is the highest level since the government began calculating the measure in 1994.

Perhaps the best historical measure of the job market, however, is the one set by the market itself: pay.

During the economic expansion that lasted from 2001 until December 2007, when the recession began, incomes for most households barely outpaced inflation. It was the weakest income growth in any expansion since World War II.

The one bit of good news in Friday’s jobs report, economists said, was that pay had not yet begun to fall sharply. Average weekly wages for rank-and-file workers, who make up about four-fifths of the work force, rose 2.8 percent over the last year, only slightly below inflation.

But economists said those pay gains would begin to shrink next year, if not in the next few weeks, given the rapid drop in demand for workers. “Wage increases of this magnitude will be history very soon,” said Joshua Shapiro, an economist at MFR Incorporated, a research firm in New York.

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