In his Economic Scene column in today's New York Times, David Leonhardt discusses the challenges of measuring unemployment and using the unemployment rate to assess the state of the labor market. In a nutshell, we have a fairly low official unemployment rate and yet many people not working. In this excerpt, he focuses on a distinction that his colleague Paul Krugman once glossed over (to much fanfare in my first month of blogging):
There are only two possible explanations for this bizarre combination of a falling employment rate and a falling unemployment rate. The first is that there has been a big increase in the number of people not working purely by their own choice. You can think of them as the self-unemployed. They include retirees, as well as stay-at-home parents, people caring for aging parents and others doing unpaid work.As we discussed briefly then, the BLS does collect measures of unemployment that progressively relax the condition that individuals have to be actively looking for work. Leonhardt characterizes them as "broader but not especially useful." I don't think they should be dismissed so readily. They are found in Table A-12 of the monthly employment report. You can get the historical data here. Let's go to the picture.
If growth in this group were the reason for the confusing statistics, we wouldn’t need to worry. It would be perfectly fair to say that unemployment was historically low.
The second possible explanation — a jump in the number of people who aren’t working, who aren’t actively looking but who would, in fact, like to find a good job — is less comforting. It also appears to be the more accurate explanation.
The 4 curves are as follows:
- Blue: The conventionally measured unemployment rate, currently at 5 percent and low by historical standards. This is the number unemployed divided by the total number in the labor force (employed plus unemployed).
- Red: Add people classified as discouraged workers--those who have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for a job--to the unemployed. The increase is very slight--historically between 0.1 and 0.4 percentage points.
- Yellow: Add people classified as marginally attached (beyond being discouraged)--those who currently are not looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past. This currently adds 0.8 percentage points to the unemployment rate, which is typical of the full 14 year time period.
- Green: Add people classified as employed part time for economic reasons--those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule. This number is currently 9 percentage points of the labor force (augmented to include those marginally attached or employed part time for economic reasons).
The more comprehensive measures of labor underutilization are available and are consistent with the story being told in the article, though you have to get to "employed part time for economic reasons" to get much of a gap. I think they would be more "useful" to journalists if journalists chose to report them.
Barry Ritholtz also comments on the story and refers back to a measure of the "augmented unemployment rate," which doesn't include the economic part timers but also doesn't require that those who want a job have actually looked for one. (This information can be calculated from Table A-1 of the monthly employment report.) At present, there are about 5 million who "want a job" among the roughly 80 million who are not in the labor force, or about 6.25 percent. This proportion has stayed around 6 percent for several years.