Chart of the day, employment edition

By Felix Salmon
December 2, 2011
employment report counts as a win for the White House.

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Today’s employment report counts as a win for the White House. Markets care about payrolls; politicians care about unemployment. And so does the country as a whole: the severity with which the BLS website crashes on the first Friday of the month is a direct function of the change in the headline unemployment rate, which, wonderfully, fell to just 8.6% last month.

But while numbers matter in election campaigns, it’s people who vote. And they vote based on their own personal experiences, rather than on macroeconomic statistics. And the fact is that if you’re a person in America, the likelihood that you have a job was unchanged this month: the employment-to-population ratio ticked up just one tenth of one percentage point.

When employed people become unemployed, that’s bad news, and immediately visible in the unemployment rate. When unemployed people leave the labor force entirely, that’s equally bad news, but it’s a tougher measure for the public to connect with, since at that point they’re no longer counted in the unemployment rate. Everybody knows what “unemployment” is; the population which cares about the “employment-to-population ratio”, by contrast, is wholly comprised of wonks.

The plunge in the employment-to-population ratio over the course of the Great Recession is going to be its biggest and most lasting legacy. We’re now back to the levels last seen in the days before most women worked, but we live in a very different world now. In the late 1970s, a woman without a job was much less likely to consider herself unemployed than in the early 2010s. And when she casts her vote in November, the degree to which she’s happy or unhappy with the current administration is going to be much more connected to her actual employment status than it is to whether she’s officially showing up in the unemployment rolls.

Over the next few months, we’ll get a better sense of the signal-to-noise ratio in the 8.6% number. I’m hopeful that we’ve seen the last 9 handle in the headline unemployment data series, and if I’m right, then the optics of the unemployment rate are, at the margin, good for Ds and bad for Rs. But the unemployment rate is not a particularly good gauge of how well the economy is functioning, or how many people have jobs. And I’m very pessimistic that the employment-to-population ratio is going to get back above 60% even over the medium term. It’s certainly not going to get there before the election.

It’s no coincidence that after the employment-to-population ratio plunged, we saw the rise of first the Tea Party and then Occupy Wall Street. Social unrest will not go away so long as more than 40% of the US population is jobless. Some part of that 41.5% is too young to work; some part is too old; some part is in jail; and some minuscule part is simply too rich to care. But at heart, it’s a massive dead weight dragging down the hopes and prospects of hundreds of millions of Americans. And they’re not going to take it quietly.

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