The stagnation behind the excellent jobs report

By Felix Salmon
March 8, 2013

Today’s jobs report is an unambiguously positive one: America had 236,000 more jobs in February than it had in January, and the unemployment rate is down to 7.7%, the lowest it’s been since 2008, before Barack Obama was even sworn in. (Although, it’s still nowhere near the 6.5% at which the Fed will start thinking about tightening monetary policy.) Things are getting better, US fiscal policy notwithstanding, and it’s great to see construction in particular, especially non-residential construction, finally making a substantial positive contribution to the numbers.

All is not entirely sweetness and light, though, as Brad DeLong and many others have noted. The number of multiple jobholders rose by 340,000 this month, to 7.26 million — a rise larger than the headline rise in payrolls. Which means that one way of looking at this report is to say that all of the new jobs created were second or third jobs, going to people who were already employed elsewhere. Meanwhile, the number of people unemployed for six months or longer went up by 89,000 people this month, to 4.8 million, and the average duration of unemployment also rose, to 36.9 weeks from 35.3 weeks.

In terms of the economy, it’s not good enough to simply increase employment and decrease unemployment, if the proportion of people with jobs isn’t actually going up. Which is why this chart, from Calculated Risk, is the most important one to look at right now:

Both the employment-to-population ratio ad the labor force participation rate are much lower than they ought to be: if this is a recovery, the former in particular ought to be going up, rather than going nowhere. Yes, it’s important to ensure that the unemployed get jobs. But in many ways it’s even more important to try to create jobs for people who simply aren’t working, rather than just for the people who are actively looking for work.

To turn these ratios into hard numbers: there are 89.3 million Americans who are not in the labor force, of whom just 6.8 million currently want a job. The economy ought to be able to find good, rewarding jobs not only for the 6.8 million, but for a large chunk of the other 82.5 million as well. Just imagine what that would do for tax revenues: all our fiscal problems would be solved at a stroke!

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