December 16, 2008
As U.S. jobs disappear at a rapid clip, the official unemployment figure seems understated. While November’s 6.7% rate is a full 2% higher than the same time last year, the rate remains well below the 10.8% postwar peak, reached in November 1982. One issue is that the official unemployment number captures only a slice of the total joblessness in the U.S. To be counted as unemployed in this statistic, a worker must not have a job, be currently available for work, and have actively sought employment within the last four weeks. In other words, a lot of the jobless are left out of the government’s tally.
Rajeev Dhawan, director of Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, says the official unemployment rate is “not a good measure of what is happening in the economy. It’s drawn from a sample too small and filled with too many assumptions. Absolute job losses and retail sales give a better idea of what’s really happening in the economy.”
Fortunately, digging deeper into the labyrinth of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Web site can offer a more complete, if imperfect, picture of joblessness. Since 1993, the BLS has tracked a category of unemployed called U-6, which captures the total unemployed, plus what the agency calls “marginally attached” workers and those employed part-time “for economic reasons.” For November 2008, that rate was 12.5%, nearly double the official unemployment rate and the highest since the government started tracking this category.