Jobless rate really at 22%?

The AP gave us a media watershed moment last Friday when it, er, unexpectedly gave a full report on the fact that the joblessness rate hides a lot more misery these days than before.  Why?  So many people have been out of work for so long that that the Bureau of Labor Statistics no longer counts many of them.  The measured labor force — the number of people used by BLS as a baseline to calculate its unemployment rate — has dropped to its lowest percentage since August 1985, merely 64.5% of the American population.  Accordingly, the AP’s Christopher Rugaber noted that the underemployment figure has gone to its highest level since 1994, when the statistic first got measured, over 17%.

But does that tell the entire story?  John Crudele writes in today’s New York Post that the actual unemployment rate may be much higher than that — perhaps as high as 22%:

I’ve been mentioning that under-employed figure — called U-6 by the Labor Department — for years and I’m glad everyone else has finally caught up.

But that larger figure doesn’t include a huge number of unemployed folks who have given up looking for work because they feel the search is hopeless. Last Friday’s report said 661,000 such people left the labor force in December.

If you count these hopelessly unemployed, the real jobless rate is probably close to 22 percent. If these all weren’t such important issues, this would all be a big joke.

Ironically, one of the Obama administration’s top economic advisers made this same point — only Austan Goolsbee did his complaining in 2003, as Crudele explains:

Back in November 2003 an economist named Austan Goolsbee from the University of Chicago wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times criticizing a Labor Department announcement about job growth the month before.

And he attacked the idea that the country had just experienced nothing more than a mild recession.

“Unfortunately, underreporting unemployment has served the interest of both political parties,” wrote Goolsbee. “The situation has grown so dire, though, that we can’t tell whether the job market is recovering.”

Did Goolsbee have a point in 2003?  A small point, perhaps.  This chart from the BLS shows the number of jobs rather than derivatives such as the unemployment rate, and I have added a circle to the period to which Goolsbee referred:

To be helpful, I’ve added a big rectangle to the data from the last two years.  Note that the slope of the decline actually remains the same in 2009 as in 2008 before bottoming out in November.  The period between 2003 and 2008 is when the Bush economic plan created a massive expansion of jobs, in case anyone forgets that point.

So yes, Goolsbee was right to note that job creation had not yet ticked upward until the third quarter of 2003, and that the unemployment figures masked that to a small extent.  But will Goolsbee admit that the unemployment numbers now mask a great deal more misery and job losses — and that the Obama administration’s stimulus attempts did nothing to halt the decline of jobs in the US?  Don’t hold your breath.

Update: Be sure to read Jim Geraghty’s take on this. Also, did a couple of minor edits on the final paragraph.

Update II: King Banaian says, “Not so fast” — and he has heartburn over Crudele’s use of the statistics.  Crudele’s point on Goolsbee is still undisputed, however.