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Unemployment Rate Climbs to 8.1% in New Sign of Deepening Recession

March 6, 2009 at 6:00 PM EST
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The Labor Department reported Friday that the U.S. unemployment rate hit 8.1 percent, its highest rate in 25 years. Ray Suarez reports on the latest employment numbers, reaction from the White House and the impact on Wall Street.
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JIM LEHRER: The national unemployment rate climbed 0.5 percent today, another sign of a deepening recession. The Labor Department reported it jumped to 8.1 percent for February, the highest jobless rate since 1983.

Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s the largest percentage of Americans out of work in 25 years, the biggest slump in employment in the post-World War II period, and it was the first thing President Obama addressed during a visit to Columbus, Ohio, today.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: Just this morning, we learned that we lost another 651,000 jobs throughout the country in the month of February alone, which brings the total number of jobs lost in this recession to an astounding 4.4 million, 4.4 million jobs. I don’t need to tell the people of this state what statistics like this mean.

Job loss 'close to historic'

RAY SUAREZ: Back in Washington, government officials said they didn't expect the jobs picture to improve anytime soon. Keith Hall is the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A year ago, the unemployment rate stood at 4.8 percent.

KEITH HALL, Commissioner, Bureau of Labor Statistics: We've never had four straight months of job loss in excess of 600,000.

RAY SUAREZ: He testified before the Joint Economic Committee.

KEITH HALL: We're already very close to historical levels in job losses. And as long as we don't get economic growth, we're probably not going to get job loss -- job gains, sorry.

RAY SUAREZ: Shortly after the job numbers were released, the president left the White House for the quick, three-hour trip to Ohio. Once there, he conceded the job losses had been heavy, but the main point of the trip was to emphasize the 3.5 million jobs he says will be saved or created by the economic recovery and reinvestment act.

Mr. Obama credited the stimulus bill and the millions of dollars sent to Columbus with saving the jobs of these 25 new police officers. Before the bill passed, they were all laid off.

BARACK OBAMA: I don't need to tell this graduating class what it's like to know that your job might be next, because, up until a few weeks ago, that is precisely the future that this class faced, a future that millions of Americans still face right now. Well, that is not a future I accept for the United States of America.

For those who still doubt the wisdom of our recovery plan, I ask them to talk to the teachers who are still able to teach our children because we passed this plan. I ask them to come to Ohio and meet the 25 men and women who will soon be protecting the streets of Columbus because we passed this plan.

Prospects slim for job seekers

RAY SUAREZ: Nearly 2 million jobs have been lost in the last three months alone.

This week's grim economic news added up to big price swings on Wall Street today. In the end, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 32 points to close at nearly 6,627. The Nasdaq fell 5 points to close at 1,293. And for the week, the Dow and Nasdaq both lost more than 6 percent. It was the fourth consecutive week of declines.

OFFICE WORKER: You've already got your unemployment this week.

RAY SUAREZ: For those out there looking for work, the prospects are slim. Arlington, Virginia's, unemployment rate is about half the national average, but at this employment center, job-seekers find themselves in the same frustrating position as 12.5 million unemployed, or underemployed people, across the country.

Devon Brown has been looking for a job for five months.

DEVON BROWN: I'm just not getting any responses back or anything. You know, I really need a job. I need a job real bad. I've got mouths to feed, got children out there that need me.

RAY SUAREZ: Kira Wooton spent 30 years working as a legal secretary and has interviewed for 11 jobs since January, and none have panned out.

KIRA WOOTON:  Right now, I'm at the point where I'd take a job at Borders or anything and just then keep looking within my career. I just really need a job, and that's what it's coming down to.

RAY SUAREZ: Attendance is also up at job fairs across the country, like this one in a New York City hotel yesterday. The lines snaked around multiple levels, nearly 4,000 applicants for 1,000 jobs.

Three states -- California, Michigan and Rhode Island -- have jumped into unemployment rates above 10 percent. Two others -- Oregon and Nevada -- are inching closer.