Analysis: Today’s unemployment number fools us and President Trump, but for different reasons
A quick look at today’s headline unemployment number, and you’d think the U.S. job market was killing it with the official unemployment rate down again to 4.3 percent from 4.4 percent last month, and a stunning drop from fully 10 percent in October 2009, at the depth of the post-Crash recession. Moreover, 4.3 percent has often been referred to as “full employment,” or somewhere close to it, because there are always millions of Americans between jobs who are obliged to tell the monthly survey takers that they didn’t work a lick in the past seven days.
And yet… the economy only grew by a disappointing 138,000 jobs in May, though the “civilian non institutional population” added about 180,000 people. Moreover, the number of jobs added in the last two months — March and April — turned out to be much much lower than initially reported — a combined 66,000 fewer new jobs in all.
Now, I always tell people to not make too much of any one month’s number, and I try not to myself. The numbers come from surveys, taken from samples of American households and employers. But hey, I’m a “journalist” (from the French daily) and this is today’s news. And even if you take a longer view, it’s now three months in a row that suggest slower growth, a far cry from last year’s hearty average of 180,000 net new jobs a month. By contrast, over the past three months, the U.S. economy added just 121,000 jobs per month on average. And a whopping 608,000 people seem to have left the workforce entirely in May alone.
Okay, many of them are probably retirees. That number we’ve been using for the past few years — 10,000 Americans a day hitting age 65 — still holds, for a grand total of something like 300,000 potential retirees a month. But that’s not 600,000!
So are folks just giving up? Are “seniors” who had kept looking for jobs after age 65 finally saying “to hell with it”? Or is the May number in need of downward revision, just like the jobs overstatements of the past two months? I wouldn’t want to bet on the right answer. And neither should you.
There was further job expansion in one inexorably growing sector of the economy — health care — which added another 24,000 jobs in May. As we recently reported on Making Sen$e, the expected growth rate for the sector from 2014 to 2024 is a very healthy 19 percent. (The expected growth rate for all other industries over the same time period: barely 7 percent.)
And it’s no surprise. Our country is visibly aging, with people 65 and older now making up about 15 percent of our population. As people get older, not only do they leave the labor force, but their health needs increase, raising the demand for health care workers.
So why, you might ask, are so many people leaving the labor force when the demand for work that almost anyone can arguably learn to do is growing?
Well, a lot of health care work is quite demanding, both emotionally and physically. Can older workers really do it well, or do it at all?
Another problem with health care work: the pay. Yes, doctors and even some nurses are generously compensated (not to mention drug reps, hospital and insurance executives). But so many health care jobs are low-end, low-pay. And when you look at last month’s overall pay numbers, you can quickly see that “production and nonsupervisory employees” in general got an average raise of 3 cents in May, which projects to a measly annual increase of 1.6 percent, less than the rate of inflation (2.2 percent over the past year).
As it happens, we’ve just begun a Making Sen$e broadcast story about another key industry — retail, where nearly 5 million American workers were employed as of 2014, but that has hemorrhaged jobs recently. As the New York Times reported in April, “about 89,000 American workers “in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October…That is more than all the people employed in the coal industry.”
And sure enough, in May, the trend continued. As economist Heidi Shierholz tweeted this morning: “Retail continues slide: has lost 6,000 jobs per month on avg for the last 8 months (compared to 22,000 added per month over the prior 4 yrs)”
Retail continues slide: has lost 6,000 jobs per month on avg for the last 8 months (compared to 22,000 added per month over the prior 4 yrs)
— Heidi Shierholz (@hshierholz) June 2, 2017
What were other commentators saying?
An economist we have often relied on, Justin Wolfers:
Trump's claim that "the economy is starting to come back" is nonsense, as is over-excited liberals saying the economy has stalled.
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) June 2, 2017
Liberal economist Elise Gould:
The overall unemployment rate fell for all the wrong reasons & the unemployment rates for workers of color remain high. Black urate at 7.5%. pic.twitter.com/sRUaL1QHL9
— Elise Gould (@eliselgould) June 2, 2017
— Economic Policy Inst (@EconomicPolicy) June 2, 2017
Conservative economists were no kinder. Republican Douglas Holtz-Eakin, whom we also relied on often over the years, posted this: “On the heels of a strong April jobs report and a month of strong readings of the high-frequency data, the labor market appeared set to take off. No.”
And finally, Manhattan Institute economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth had this to say:
It is fitting that President Trump withdrew from the Paris Accord the day before the Labor Department issued its employment report for May, thereby saving the economy from future higher energy prices and additional regulation. With only 138,000 jobs created, and a decline in the labor force participation rate, the economy needs to do better.
One last item. As we try to do every month, we calculate what we call “U7,” the most inclusive reckoning of under- and unemployment around, believing that the “headline” unemployment number that comes out every month, “U3,” considerably understates the real state of the labor market. President Trump agrees, saying in Iowa this past December: “The unemployment number, as you know, is totally fiction. If you look for a job for six months and then you give up, they consider you give up. You just give up. You go home. You say, ‘Darling, I can’t get a job.’ They consider you statistically employed. It’s not the way. But don’t worry about it because it’s going to take care of itself pretty quickly.” Trump estimated the actual unemployment rate at 42 percent.
Well, we can’t really imagine a number more inclusive than U7, and the fact is, it dropped to 10.63 percent in May, the lowest number since we began reporting U7 7 years ago. So 42 percent seems, well, typically off-the-cuff.
Trump is right to be concerned, of course; a 10.63 percent U7 still means roughly 17.5 million under- or unemployed Americans. But at the rate of job growth since President Trump took office, the problem is unlikely to take care of itself anytime soon.
As for the Administration’s take, Sean Spicer dutifully did what all press secretarIes are expected to do: cast the monthly job report in the most positive light. And so he said it showed that: “Americans seeking jobs are having more success finding them than at any point in the last 16 years,” a statement that could be true, but came with no visible means of support. His full statement is here.