A Bad Jobs Report: Unemployment Down but U7 Still Above 27 Million

BY Paul Solman  September 7, 2012 at 10:30 AM EST


Job seekers wait for a career fair to open in Denver, Colo. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

The delegates at the Democratic convention greeted President Obama enthusiastically Thursday night. Friday morning’s job numbers did not. Quite the opposite.

Job growth, as extrapolated from the survey of “establishments” (places that employ people) came in at a meager 96,000, almost 30 percent below the consensus expectation. Subtract 41,000 jobs from that total, due to downward revisions of previously reported job growth this summer, and you’ve got a lame datum indeed.

Government jobs contracted. So did factory jobs. The growth was in health care, “professional and technical services,” and, most of all, “food services and drinking places.” Drowning our sorrows?

There was a bit of apparent good news: the headline unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent as 250,000 or so fewer Americans reported themselves officially “unemployed” when surveyed at home. But that’s only because they stopped looking for work, it appears. Our own inclusive measure of un- and underemployment, U7, barely budged as the formerly “unemployed” simply shifted to “not in labor force.” The only reason U7 didn’t rise was because more than 100,000 part-timers seem to have found full-time work.

AUG 2012 Solman Scale U7 Unemployment

It’s shaping up as an odd day on the economic front. European markets remain euphoric from Thursday’s firm announcement, by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, that the ECB will bail out everyone who asks nicely, and promises to mend their ways, under scrutiny from governments other than their own. But as the New York Times’ Nobel columnist Paul Krugman has long warned, “mend their ways” means budget-tightening, aka “austerity,” and how are economies to pay off their debts if they — and thus their tax revenues — continue to contract?

When it comes to America, though, Paul has a surprisingly upbeat column this morning (posted last night) on how well the U.S. economy is doing; how the recovery is picking up speed. So what does he make of the weak jobs report? Here’s his blog post at 8:55 a.m., under the headline “No News On Jobs”:

“The headline number came in a bit below expectations, but that’s probably just the noisiness in the data. The best hypothesis about the U.S. economy this past year and more is that it has been steadily adding jobs at a pace roughly fast enough to keep up with but not get ahead of population growth. Today’s report was consistent with a continuation of that story. Nothing to see here.”

Really? “Nothing”? For certain? I too warn about the random “noise” in monthly sample data — almost every month, when we compute U7. But even allowing for “noise,” wasn’t today’s news a vivid example of what Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke last week called a “grave concern”: high unemployment that is unprecedented in its stubbornness? Especially in light of the downward revisions for June and July?

So far this morning — 10:30 a.m. — the Dow is flat, not falling. But one might well guess that the paltry job numbers explain its relative buoyancy: an expectation that the Fed will now try to pump up the economy.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions