If the unemployment rate is so great, why do you still feel so bad?

BLS unemp reportAmerica is working again!  That was the irresistible headline you heard all day Friday from business journalists cheering the monthly unemployment report. Story after story screamed that the unemployment rate had sunk below 6 percent for the first time since the recession began. Please ignore all those stories.

First off: hiring has picked up. That’s undeniable, and it’s a good thing. It’s certainly possible to make a case that the U.S. economy is moving in the right direction. But only if you define moving the way snails do. If you scratch the numbers behind the unemployment report just a tiny bit, you’ll see it’s time to put away the party hats.

For starters, I think it’s nearly fraudulent that business reporters continue to cite the so-called “headline” unemployment number when they write stories about the monthly employment report.  There are actually six measures posted by the Labor Department.  The “headline” number is known to economists as U3, It ignores underemployed people (those working part-time instead of full-time) and more critically, the long-term unemployed who have given up looking for a job.  That number, called U6, is really 11.8 percent, or double the more cheery unemployment number everyone conspires to yell at you.

Still, even in U6, there is good news.  That rate is also lower than it’s been since 2008.   And still, more good news: things were much better this summer than originally reported.  As you might imagine, measuring unemployment is as much art as science, and the data is revised frequently.   The August jobs numbers were revised to the positive, again showing a trend towards more hiring.  There’s no denying that 250,000 jobs created in September is a good sign for the economy.

The real question, however, is what kind of jobs are they?  The answer: the same kind of new jobs we’ve seen for some time now. And that’s bad news.  Mid-wage jobs continue to disappear and be replaced by low-wage jobs, a trend that is undermining both the recovery and American families everywhere.

Here’s a fantastic story from the Los Angeles Times in August, explaining that all the jobs California lost during the recession have been replaced (yea!) but $15-$30-per-hour jobs have been replaced by $10-per hour jobs (boo!).  Here’s what that means.

“The long-term problem isn’t unemployment; it’s poverty,” Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, told the Times. “It’s not jobs; it’s wages.”

That trend is pretty obvious in Friday’s unemployment report.  Of the 248,000 jobs created last month, 35,000 were in retail (mostly food and beverage workers), 58,000 were in administrative and support services,  and 33,00 were in leisure and hospitality. (Click for the full breakdown from BLS)

Logan Mohtashami, senior loan manager at AMC Lending Group, says that conservatively, at least half the jobs created in September were low-wage jobs. Ideally, that number would be about one-third. Mohtashami blogs about financial data at LoganMohtashami.com. (Definitely worth a click)

That effect shows up in stubbornly sluggish wage growth reported in the data. Despite the job additions, wage growth fell by a penny in September. That’s a break from historical patterns, but the meaning is obvious: employers still have the upper hand in the job market. They feel no pressure to find or retain employees, which would force them to raise wages.

This is where all those hidden unemployed folks — the folks in U6, but not U3, who have dropped out of the labor market — matter a lot. As jobs appear, they reappear.  While 6 percent sounds like a low unemployment number, and the number at which you’d think wages would have to start to climb, they don’t, because employers know there’s plenty more workers fighting over limited job openings.

So why the persistently sunny reading of the unemployment report?  Here’s a simple explanation:  One analyst I know described this as a Goldilocks economy, and he’s right, as far as Wall Street is concerned.  The *bad* thing about lower unemployment is it means more people making money, and spending money, which means inflation.  Inflation means higher interest rates, and which generally lowers stock price growth. Inflation would also be deadly for the fragile housing market recovery. So the dream scenario for Wall Street is higher employment without wage growth and inflation. For now, we have that.  It’s the Wall Street equivalent of pulling an inside straight.

Click to learn more about The Restless Project
Click to learn more about The Restless Project

For Main Street? It means more uncertainty, more restlessness.

To be clear, I’m not saying more jobs are a bad thing.  I’m not denying there’s a real trend toward job creation, and I’m not rejecting the possibility that the economy has turned a corner.  But it’s ignorant to cheer for last month’s unemployment number. In fact, it’s insulting to Americans who continue to struggle.

“Perma Bears and Perma Bulls are always wrong,” warns Mohtashami. “There is a real story in between the headline sensationalism.”

The September jobs report is a very mixed bag. We won’t know things have turned around until wages start climbing, showing that good jobs are available, and here to stay.

Not now.  Not yet, anyway.  Always read beyond the headlines, where the real story lives.

Follow The Restless Project. Sign up for Bob Sullivan’s free email newsletter. 

Don’t miss a post. Sign up for my newsletter

About Bob Sullivan 1538 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.