February Unemployment Numbers: Good, But Don’t Pop the Champagne

BY Paul Solman  March 4, 2011 at 1:23 PM EDT

The unemployment numbers for February are in, and though economist Peter Morici advises, “Don’t Break Out the Champagne Just Yet,” the data are encouraging.

Making Sense

There are two separate surveys, remember – of “establishments” (places that employ folks) and “households” (the folks themselves). Sometimes, they tell different stories. But not for February. 192,000 net jobs added, according to the employers; 250,000 more Americans working, according to the Americans themselves.

Note: New jobs added is rounded from 5,993,000 to 5.99 million in the graphic.

The headline is “unemployment drops to 8.9 percent, the lowest in several years.” That’s from the Household Survey and includes everyone who looked for work in the past four weeks — but didn’t work even one hour in the past week. By post-war standards, that’s stunningly high, and the war I mean is not Iraq or the Gulf War or Vietnam or Korea, but World War II, which ended a good 66 years ago.

Moreover, as we’ve chronicled in considerable detail, starting in 2003, today’s number ought to be lower than the previous high point (10.8 percent official unemployment in 1982) because millions more Americans who presumably would be counted as unemployed are in prison, on disability, or not counted at all, since they haven’t looked for work in a year.

See “Non-Working Numbers” and
Many Left Uncounted in Nation’s Official Jobless Rate.

The government does report a far more inclusive statistic for under- and unemployment, “U-6,” which counts people who haven’t looked for work in the past four weeks but have in the past year — officially dubbed “discouraged” workers — plus part-timers looking for full-time work. That number finally dipped below 16 percent in February, but it’s still 15.9 percent.

Our own statistic — U-7 — is even more inclusive, adding back in all those Americans dropped from the “labor force” entirely because they haven’t looked for work in a year, though they say they want a job. The “super-discouraged,” if you will. U-7 as of February: 17.7 percent, down a full percentage point from 18.7 percent when we debuted the number two months ago.

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