Counting the Cost

The March unemployment report offers mixed news

Julianne Malveaux | 4/13/2017, midnight

Our 45th president has had no trouble claiming the good employment news reported for January and February of this year. In those jobs reports, released on the first Friday of the month, we saw unemployment rates of 4.8 and 4.7 percent. In both of those months, more than 200,000 jobs were created. Forty-five crowed that this data showed how successful his presidency had been, even though he had barely kept his seat in the Oval Office warm, and even though he had done nothing, from a policy perspective, to stake his claim on progress that could only have come from the economic recovery engineered by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now, we have the report from March, with an unemployment rate, at 4.5 percent, that is at its lowest level in a decade (since May 2007). We also have a sluggish report on job creation–with just 98,000 new jobs, less than half as many jobs that were created in each of the last two months. Is the 45th president going to claim that his actions have caused a slowing in job creation? Since he was so quick to claim credit when the numbers looked good, what will he say now?

More importantly, the low jobs creation number suggests that the economic recovery we have been experiencing is far from solid. The March number can be a mere hiccup–we did have weather challenges last month that may have slowed some job creation, and may even have been responsible for lower job growth in the retail sector. But it might also suggest that the Fed should not be so quick to raise interest rates. Despite relatively low unemployment rates, there is room for much more job creation before employers will have to compete for workers.

The overall unemployment rate of 4.5 percent would be something to celebrate, if it were accompanied with more job creation. It might also be something to celebrate if the Black unemployment rate were not so high–at 8 percent, it is more than twice the White rate of 3.9 percent. Furthermore, when those marginally attached to the labor market, discouraged workers, and those working part time because they can’t find full time work, are included, the overall unemployment rate is 8.9 percent. Using the same methodology, this unemployment rate would be 15.8 percent for African Americans.

To be sure, these numbers are a vast improvement on the numbers we saw a year ago, not to mention five years ago. But the impact of these low numbers has bypassed many workers. Too many have still not seen their pay levels increase (wage growth was around .02 percent last month), and too many still fear layoffs or job reorganizations. Equally importantly, the approach this administration has taken to federal employment and to health care have had chilling effects in the labor market. As an example, while employment has been trending up in health care, the health care sector added about 20,000 jobs a month, compared to an average monthly gain of 32,000 jobs in 2016. The baby boom isn’t getting any younger, and Americans sure aren’t getting any healthier. It is plausible that, instead, announcements about health care by this administration, and chicanery by this Congress, may have slowed health care employment, when it should be rising.