Baffling Jobless Numbers

Posted on February 7, 2011 by


The U.S. official unemployment rate plunged to 9% in January. In the past two months, the unemployment rate had the biggest 60-day drop in more than 50 years.  But only 36,000 new jobs were added to the economy (after a 121,000 rise in December).  That’s the smallest gain in four months, and far below the projected 146,000 jobs.

The two different economic surveys conducted by the BLS were contradictory and baffling to many. Even the liberal Economic Policy Institute noted that the picture was “muddled.”  How could the unemployment rate decline so much if businesses added so few workers?  This flies in the face of common sense and  is clearly an example of how statistics can lie.

Even mainstream media has had to acknowledge the contradictions in the official numbers.  This weekend New York Times’ Bob Herbert wrote in Bewitched by the Numbers about the confusing jobless data and how it does not capture the painful economic realities plaguing millions of American families.

The fact remains that even at 9% the unemployment rate is still shockingly high.  2010 was the worst year for jobs since the Great Depression and the gap between the  number of unemployed and the number of  job openings is very far from closing.

unemployed vs. number of job openings

unemployed (in red) vs. job openings (in blue)

With most of the news media focused on how the economic recovery is picking up speed, millions of unemployed Americans have felt voiceless and marginalized.  They are still trapped in the depression.  It’s therefore not surprising that the New York Times article became a lightening rod for hundreds of readers’ comments, many expressing outrage at the contemptuous attitudes towards the unemployed.

Commenting on Bewitched by the Numbers, pju in NY wrote:

… Now we have still more numbers, which make no sense, and have no relation to the pain and suffering of more than 15-million people who are still begging for the right to work and support their families. But who’s counting? And worse, who cares?

In America today, we are effectively institutionalizing a new, unconscionably high unemployment rate, and in the process relegating millions of good, capable people — many experienced and skilled, many just starting out, many without the benefit of the education that should be a right, but eager and willing to work hard and participate — to a junk heap of human detritus.

America needs to disabuse itself of the grandiose idea that we’re a people of high culture and ever-advancing civilization. Because truth be told increasingly we’re a culture of profound ignorance, cupidity, hypocrisy, and superficiality. Instead of harnessing some collective political and social will to really challenge the forces of greed and sociopathy that dominate , we wait for the next Katrina, or Tucson, or Haiti, so we can send money, cards and flowers, and make ourselves feel better while we’re doing something meaningful. But not really.

Many, many Americans are suffering, deeply. And I for one, am tired of hearing the tropes of the avaricious (the poor will always be with us). In other parts of the world, we’re beginning to see a groundswell of activism; a will to right years of injustice and at the very least begin the efforts to effect something resembling a true democracy. Sartre said: “When a man chooses for himself, he chooses for all men.” Would that the Americans who disproportionately enjoy so much, choose to share that privilege in some small measure by ensuring at the very least the right to work for the rest of us..