TOPICS > Economy

Jobless Rate Climbed to 8.5 Percent in March

April 3, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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The latest report from the Labor Department showed the unemployment rate climbed to 8.5 percent in March. Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, offers insight on the numbers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The American work force took another big hit last month, as unemployment surged to the highest level since 1983. The Labor Department reported the March rate rose 0.4 point to 8.5 percent. Employers cut 663,000 jobs, with the losses coming in virtually every sector. That makes more than 5 million jobs lost since the recession started in December of 2007.

The head of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Keith Hall, acknowledged today that it’s hard to find a silver lining. He was questioned at a congressional hearing.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY, D-N.Y.: Do you have any good news? Are there any positive economic indicators? Are there any bright spots in this month’s job report?

KEITH HALL, commissioner, Bureau of Labor Statistics: There are very few bright spots in this month’s job report.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Are there any, anywhere?

KEITH HALL: To be honest, no. And, in fact, the decline has been remarkably consistent. This month, we lost 663,000 jobs. Over the past five months, we’ve averaged losing 667,000 jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama addressed the jobs numbers as he traveled in Europe. He said they are a stark reminder of the nation’s economic woes.

Wall Street took the report in stride. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 39 points to close at 8,017. The Nasdaq rose 19 points to close above 1,621. For the week, the Dow gained 3 percent; the Nasdaq rose 5 percent.

And more now about the unemployment picture and the economy with Jeffrey Brown.

Job losses in every sector

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, I'm joined by Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a not-for-profit center that works with low-wage earners and the unemployed.

It continues to be clear that this is very widespread throughout the economy, correct...

CHRISTINE OWENS, National Employment Law Project: Correct, correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... with manufacturing leading the way. What are you seeing in different sectors?

CHRISTINE OWENS: Well, we see job loss in virtually every sector: manufacturing, construction, financial services, business services, sales, even temporary jobs are being shed at a fairly startling pace. The only sectors that are adding jobs are education and health care, and the federal government has added some jobs. But, otherwise, across the board we're seeing job losses.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned that word "pace," which is also quite striking. What does that tell you about the pace of all this?

CHRISTINE OWENS: Well, the pace of job loss has really accelerated over the last several months. We've lost -- since the recession began, we've lost more than 5 million jobs, but we've lost probably 60 percent of those jobs in the last four or five months.

So, in fact, three of the last four months we've had the largest job loss each month since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began recording job losses. So that's a fairly startling and sobering fact about the accelerating pace of contraction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the pace of the geographical spread. I see now that, what, is it seven states...

CHRISTINE OWENS: Seven states with unemployment rates above 10 percent. And, of course, that's only the official unemployment rate. It really understates the severity of the downturn in those states and nationwide.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because we don't count people who aren't looking?

CHRISTINE OWENS: We don't count people who have sort of given up on looking. We don't count people who are working part-time because they can't get full-time hours. We don't count people who decide not to go into the labor force.

And so all we count in the official rate is people who said, "I looked for a job in the last month and couldn't find one."

Long-term unemployment

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one thing I know you've been looking at specifically is the problem of long-term unemployment. Explain what you mean by that and what you're seeing.

CHRISTINE OWENS: What we see is that the problem of long-term unemployment has gotten much worse. Basically, long-term unemployed workers are those who have been looking for jobs and unable to find them for at least six months. And now 24 percent, more than 24 percent of all the unemployed workers are in that category of long-term unemployed workers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

CHRISTINE OWENS: Well, and what it's an indicator of is just what a tough economy it is, how hard it is for people to find jobs. If you have a quarter of the unemployed who had been without jobs for six months and had been looking for work, that's a sign that there just aren't jobs that are being created for these workers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that means even the kinds of jobs that one might have downscaled to?

CHRISTINE OWENS: Absolutely. I mean, the fact that we're also losing temporary jobs, which may be jobs that some folks would have gone into, but we're losing temporary jobs, so there just aren't places for these long-term unemployed workers to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're also tracking how states are handling the -- well, it's part of the stimulus money, but for unemployment assistance. What are you seeing there?

CHRISTINE OWENS: Well, there's a federal extended benefits program that's a permanent program. There's a temporary program we have in place right now that's a program of federal benefits for long-term unemployed workers.

But as part of the stimulus package, Congress and the president provided federal funding for this permanent extended benefits program. But in order to capture that funding, states have to enact certain triggers.

And there are a number of states that have not enacted those triggers. There's a narrow window; it has to happen this year. So it means it has to be done during these states' legislative sessions.

If these states don't act, as many as 500,000 unemployed workers by June are going to run out of all the benefits they have. And they will lose the opportunity to get these extended benefits.

Low-income workers hit hard

JEFFREY BROWN: All of the things we're talking about hit low-income workers hardest, presumably?

CHRISTINE OWENS: Well, they hit low-income workers very, very hard. One of the things that's interesting about the long-term unemployment figures that we're looking at is that there is some increase in the share of long-term unemployed workers among older workers and among workers who are more educated.

But typically in recessions it is low-income workers and less-educated workers who really take a hit, and we're certainly seeing that in this recession, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: In spite of the grim picture that we're hearing, there were some analysts and economists being quoted today that they -- we always talk about unemployment as a lagging indicator. So there were some, and maybe it was the hope -- the optimistic ones who are thinking, "Maybe this is the end or this is the worst of the job losses." How do we know? What do we look for?

CHRISTINE OWENS: Well, we obviously don't really know. And I wish that were true. It is not true.

The fact is, unemployment has continued to rise. We're not at the end of this recession. In fact, typically, unemployment rises after recessions end as people come back into the labor market.

So we fully expect that unemployment will rise to as much as 9 percent or more, that long-term unemployment could reach 30 percent or more. I wish we were at the light at the end of that tunnel, but I'm not sure we're there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Christine Owens, thank you very much.

CHRISTINE OWENS: Thank you.