Conservatives have warned for years that the official unemployment rate, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is an imperfect index for measuring joblessness in the United States.
Republican officeholders like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have indelicately called the official unemployment rate “doctored” and “massaged.” To the extent that this suggests a malicious finagling of the data by malevolent bureaucrats, it is inaccurate. That is not to say, however, that Perry doesn’t have a point.
The administration is happy to trumpet the falling unemployment rate, which is now below 6 percent for the first time since the summer of 2008. “The cheerleading for this number is deafening,” wrote the polling firm Gallup’s CEO and Chairman Jim Clifton. “The media loves a comeback story, the White House wants to score political points and Wall Street would like you to stay in the market.”
But the official unemployment rate communicates a story that is altogether misleading, Clifton averred. For a variety of reasons, Clifton asserted that the official unemployment rate is “a Big Lie.”
If you, a family member or anyone is unemployed and has subsequently given up on finding a job — if you are so hopelessly out of work that you’ve stopped looking over the past four weeks — the Department of Labor doesn’t count you as unemployed. That’s right. While you are as unemployed as one can possibly be, and tragically may never find work again, you are not counted in the figure we see relentlessly in the news — currently 5.6%. Right now, as many as 30 million Americans are either out of work or severely underemployed. Trust me, the vast majority of them aren’t throwing parties to toast “falling” unemployment.
There’s another reason why the official rate is misleading. Say you’re an out-of-work engineer or healthcare worker or construction worker or retail manager: If you perform a minimum of one hour of work in a week and are paid at least $20 — maybe someone pays you to mow their lawn — you’re not officially counted as unemployed in the much-reported 5.6%. Few Americans know this.
Yet another figure of importance that doesn’t get much press: those working part time but wanting full-time work. If you have a degree in chemistry or math and are working 10 hours part time because it is all you can find — in other words, you are severely underemployed — the government doesn’t count you in the 5.6%. Few Americans know this.
Much of this will come as no surprise to politically active Republicans. Conservatives have complained for years that the labor participant rate, which is currently the lowest it has been in 38 years, is often ignored by the press. Moreover, in the Obama-era, many on the right have taken to monitoring the U-6 as a gauge of “real unemployment.”
According to Gallup, which also conducts surveys to determine the unemployment rate that are based on a rolling 30-day average and are not seasonally adjusted, has determined that only 44.1 percent of the whole American population is working more than 30 hours per week. Gallup pegs the underemployment rate (part-time workers) at 15.9 percent of the public and has calculated the real unemployment rate at 7.1 percent. According to Gallup, the unemployment rate has increased by over 1 percent since mid-December.
Clifton makes it clear that the stakes are high, that America’s persistently high rates of unemployment are indicative of a country in decline, and that the issue of unemployment is fading from the forefront of the national dialogue as media professionals increasingly defer to the BLS. It is good to know that one of the nation’s leading pollsters will not be playing along with the Democrats as they seek to convince the American public that their record on jobs and the recovery merits handing the party’s nominee four more years in the White House.