The Labor Department’s latest employment report is wishy-washy enough to invite wildly divergent spins from the Obama administration and its Republican rivals.
Said Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors: “There is more work to be done, but today’s employment report provides further evidence that the economy is continuing to recover from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”
Said Mitt Romney: “This is a weak and very troubling jobs report that shows the employment market remains stagnant. Millions of Americans are paying a high price for President Obama’s economic policies, and more and more people are growing so discouraged that they are dropping out of the labor force altogether.”
The truth is that Friday’s report about U.S. employment in March was a huge disappointment compared with the previous three months. The Labor Department estimated that employers added 120,000 workers in March, compared with more than 200,000 in each of the three previous months. Of course, that’s just an initial assessment; it could be revised up or down in future months as better data come in.
Some analysts worry that the hiring slowdown proves that the earlier gains were just holiday-season spikes. Krueger noted that 33,800 jobs were lost in retail, adding, “Almost three-quarters of the slower job growth in March relative to February was due to slower growth in temporary help services and healthcare and day-care services.”
Last year saw strong job gains in February, March and April, then a slump through the summer that pushed the unemployment rate back up over 9%. The initial March report wasn’t that bad -- the unemployment rate actually improved ever-so-slightly to 8.2% -- but as Romney noted, the number of Americans in the workforce continued to slide.
That’s not because job-seekers are growing more discouraged, however; according a Labor Department report, the number of people too discouraged to keep looking for work is lower than it was a year ago, despite the fact that 2.3 million more Americans above the age of 16 aren’t working. Instead, more potential workers are going to school, aren’t available for work or simply don’t want a job now.
Cutting through the politics, it’s fair to say that the jobs report for March shows the recovery is continuing but not at a pace that anyone should be happy about. That’s no surprise; the employment gains earlier this year had far outpaced the growth in the gross domestic product, which history (and Okun’s Law) suggested was unsustainable. On the other hand, the snapshot provided by the Labor Department’s report seems gloomier than the trend in applications for jobless benefits, which recently have been hitting their lowest levels since early 2008. So the data are giving mixed signals. Feel free to apply your own spin.