Strong jobs report signals more Americans returning to labor market as coronavirus wanes

The latest jobs reports shows U.S. job growth surged in February as the omicron wave of COVID-19 began fading. The Labor Department reports employers added a net of 678,000 jobs, the most since July. Jared Bernstein, who serves on the White House Council of Economic Advisers, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we mentioned, a strong monthly jobs report has exceeded expectations, signaling that more Americans are returning to the labor market this year, as coronavirus cases continue to wane.

    Geoff Bennett has the story.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Judy, this job report is the second in a row to beat economic forecasts.

    At the White House today, President Biden spoke about the strong gains.

  • President Joe Biden:

    We have learned that, in February, our economy created 678,000 new jobs, 678,000 new jobs. Over the course of my presidency, our economy has now created 7.4 million jobs, more jobs created in a 13-month period than at any time ever before in our history.

    And we have learned that, in February, the unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent, down from 6.4 percent the day I took office.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And to unpack it all for us, we're joined by Jared Bernstein, who serves on the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

    It's great to have you with us.

    And this jobs report is unambiguously good. It beat expectations, as we mentioned. What does it say about the state of the economic recovery?

    Jared Bernstein, White House Council of Economic Advisers: Well, I think it says very clearly that this is one of the most welcoming job markets in generations for virtually any job seeker in industries across the economy.

    But there's also a very important policy message. The measures that the president took when he got here, particularly the American relief plan, by getting shots in arms and checks in pockets, not only made it possible for families and businesses to get to the other side of this dual health and economic crisis, but set this labor market up for the strongest growth we have seen in generations.

    When you're posting job gains that are adding over half-a-million jobs per month on average over the past three months, you know you're into an historically strong labor market.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And there are a few challenges that remain, though.

    I mean, wage growth appears to be leveling off, but inflation isn't. Many people's paychecks aren't keeping pace with rising prices. So how is this White House planning to put some downward pressure on prices to alleviate inflation?

  • Jared Bernstein:

    The job is to maintain the kind of superlative outcomes like we saw in job market today.

    By the way, there are some key sectors, warehousing, transportation, leisure and hospitality, I believe retail trade, where wages are actually surpassing the rate of inflation. So, it is something that we need to see, though, much more broadly across the wage scale, and the way to do that is to implement the president's agenda, to keep the demand strong, keep the labor market churning while acting on the supply side.

    That means in the ports, making sure goods are getting from ship to shelf. That means, over the longer term, making sure there's investments. You heard him talk about semiconductors. Infrastructure plan is already in the field, and, very importantly, lowering costs for American families, drug costs, the cost of child and elder care, the cost of health insurance premiums.

    All of that is part of the president's agenda.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, let's shift our focus abroad and talk about the economic consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

    How is the Biden administration planning to mitigate the fallout on energy prices, business confidence and job growth?

  • Jared Bernstein:

    Well, first of all, when it comes to energy, you know that the sanctions do not include energy.

    There are high-level conversations, discussions ongoing now regarding import bans. That's happening in the Congress, but, also, those discussions are ongoing here. But the key when it comes to energy is to make sure that the supply of oil, it is very much a global commodity, remains where it is, so that we don't put further pressure on gas prices.

    Now, you know that the president already released oil from the Strategic Reserve. That had a pretty quick effect a few months ago, taking down gas prices about 10 cent per gallon. As recent reports have confirmed, that's happening again, this time, in tandem with many other of our partners, to the tune of about 60 million barrels released from strategic reserves, the president has said more if necessary.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You know, it strikes me that a strong jobs report like the one we just saw, it gives cover for the Fed to start raising interest rates soon, which is something that they said they wanted to do.

    In the minutes that we have left, how might that add to the overall economic picture? What should Americans be bracing for, if anything?

  • Jared Bernstein:

    Well, I thought it was important to — without getting into the granular details of Federal Reserve policies. They're an independent institution.

    What Chair Powell said earlier in the week, which is that he said something to the effect of hitting a soft landing, that is, trying to take action through their interest rate policy to diminish inflationary pressures without undermining the strong demand.

    And that, again, is at the heart of the president's agenda, two goals, maintain this strong labor market, 7.4 million jobs since this president got here, while doing all we can — let the Fed do everything they can — to ease price pressures.

    That means that opportunities will stay in place for American workers and American consumers, but, as inflation begins to ease, real incomes, real wages will grow higher.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    All right, White House economic adviser Jared Bernstein, we appreciate your time and your insights this evening.

  • Jared Bernstein:

    My pleasure.

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