Commentary on the February 2013 BLS Jobs Report

So, what’s not to like about the US economy? The stock market is making all time (nominal) highs, corporate profits at record levels, housing prices rising – well, maybe there’s still the question of jobs: the lack thereof. Today’s BLS jobs report is certainly better than many of those in the past year: 236,000 jobs created compared to the 2011 – 2012 averages, both of which were in the 150 – 155,000/month range. That level of job creation is sufficient to absorb new entrants plus 35 – 40,000 unemployed. The level of job creation in February would provide about 120,000 jobs above the level of new labor market entrants. However, the downward revision of the new jobs numbers for January 2013 leaves 2013 YTD with only 60,000/month job creation above the level necessary to provide jobs for new labor force entrants.

Let’s put these numbers in context: there remain over 12 million officially unemployed and another almost 7 million people classified as “not in the labor force” but stating that they want a job. Even at the rate of job creation for Feb 2013, it would take 158 months – 13 years – to provide jobs for all who seek them. The experience of past recessions suggests that the actual number of jobs needed is actually greater than 19 million; when/if job creation picks up after a recession, many people who have given up looking for work return to seeking jobs.

Another way of putting these numbers in context is to remember that there are 2.5 million fewer people employed today than in Dec 2007, the month that marks the beginning of the Great Recession. Further, since that date, the same time the labor force has grown by almost 2 million and those “not in the labor force” have grown by 12 million. Or you can just remember that if these 19 million people were standing shoulder to shoulder, they would stretch from Bangor Maine to Los Angele and back – and there would still be 2 million people not in that line.

When we break down the unemployed by gender, ethnicity and race, we find the long term patterns of unequal labor market access continuing. Comparing unemployment by race and ethnicity, the unemployment rate for African Americans is 13.8% and for Hispanics 9.6% vs. 6.8% for white workers and an overall unemployment rate of 7.7%.

There is also a gender pattern of unemployment that is not evident when the focus is on the overall rate. The Great Recession saw heavier job losses among males than females. Over the past two years, however, males have accounted for 66% of total employment growth. This trend does not reflect overall employment patterns: women were 47% of the total employed population at the beginning of 2011. Gender disproportion in employment growth has become even more marked during the past 12 months. Since early 2012, the male “civilian labor force” has grown by 1.2 million workers while the female labor force has increased by only 200,000.

Where have the other 1 million or so women gone? They are in the “not in the labor force” category. Why is this happening? The answer reflects the segmentation of the US labor market and the continued attacks on public sector workers. (Segmented labor markets are ones in which employment in various occupations and industries does not reflect the distribution of gender, race or ethnicity in the labor force as a whole but, via hiring and promotion practices, distributes groups unevenly across different occupations and industries, for example concentrating women in K-12 teaching positions, men in finance, etc.) Women are more likely to be part of the state and local (and to a lesser extent, federal) government labor force than are men. (A major component of the difference is, of course, teachers.) Thus the cutbacks that are being imposed by all levels of government not only significantly slow total job creation, they also disproportionately push women out of jobs and the labor force. The intersection of gender, segmented labor markets and the neoliberal attack on the public sector is an unacknowledged, but important, face of the “war on women.”

These are the figures. But we must always remember that, behind the dry numbers, are stories of dreams destroyed, of families under stress that often exceeds the breaking point, of foreclosed homes because there is no money for the mortgages, and of lost potential for us all, both the unemployed and the employed.

It is, therefore fitting that Rep. John Conyers has announced plans to reintroduce his “21st Century Full Employment and Training Act” and that Rep. Keith Ellison plans to reintroduce his bill that levies a small tax on the trading of financial assets with the revenues targeted to job creation (Ellison’s bill is much superior to the better known DeFazio/Harkin proposal). CPEG has endorsed both of these initiatives and we remain convinced that recovery from the financial crisis and the subsequent economic stagnation requires much, much more than too many of our legislators in Washington have even conceived, much less done. We must constantly push our political and economic elite to move off the dead end of deficits and instead recognize the needs of our people for full time, living wage employment.

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