Summing Up the May Jobs Report: Four Leading Economists Weigh In

Emma Lowenberg, InternBy Emma Lowenberg, Intern

Economist Jared Bernstein pretty much sums up the latest data on U.S. job numbers with this first impression: "YUK."

That comment comes in response to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Friday release of data on unemployment and payroll statistics for May. While the national jobs report was pretty disappointing, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve projects another decrease in the Pennsylvania unemployment rate this May from 7.5% to 7.4%.

Bernstein is one of four leading D.C. economists to sum up the bleak jobs picture. He, Dean Baker, Heidi Shierholz and Heather Boushey all interpret the fundamentals of the national report similarly: Job growth is stagnating, industries across the board are adding fewer jobs than before, and, when placed in the context of the past three months’ numbers, the future is not looking bright.

The unemployment rate is merely 0.5% lower than it was at its Great Recession high. Underemployment, average time spent unemployed (now nearly 40 weeks), and stagnant wages continue to be a problem. The May numbers certainly signal that the jobs crisis is not over. Shierholz and Baker even venture that substantial improvement will be hard without another stimulus.

Here’s a look at the highlights from each of the statements on Friday’s numbers.

Baker comments on the context of May’s job losses and declines, comparing them with April’s gains and the troubling trend they show:

“The retail sector reportedly added 64,000 jobs in April. It lost 8,500 in May. Health added 36,700 jobs in April, compared with an increase of just 17,400 in May. Food manufacturing added 6,300 jobs in April, it lost 7,000 in May…the 160,000 average growth over the last three months was very weak for this stage in a recovery…”

Shierholz explains that the Great Recession has left some groups continuing to bear a higher burden than others:

“All major groups of workers have experienced increases in unemployment… However, some segments have gotten hit particularly hard: young workers, workers with lower levels of schooling, racial and ethnic minorities, men, and workers with disabilities.”

Those with only a high-school diploma who were not enrolled in school had an unemployment rate of more than 21%. African Americans had an unemployment rate of over 16%, and Hispanics of over 11% (compared with whites at 8%). The unemployment rates of the two minority groups have more than doubled since the beginning of the recession.

Boushey notes that unemployment benefits are under attack. While long-term unemployment continues to be a reality (and occurrence and duration are even on the rise), the assistance available to those affected is becoming more limited. She offers this solution:

“Rather than cutting benefits for those who are out of work due to no fault of their own, Congress should enact comprehensive unemployment insurance reform that will ensure workers — and the economy — get the help they need when the unemployment rate is high.”

Finally, Bernstein overcomes his initial reaction to deliver this piece of information:

“Wage growth is really a problem here. On an hourly basis, yearly growth of nominal wages has been stuck below 2% since last February. That’s below recent inflation, and it means that [the] only way families can get ahead is with more hours of work. For that option, see today’s jobs report.”

Even as Pennsylvania’s economy is expected to improve, the national job numbers in May were less than encouraging. Here’s hoping for a better June.

Emma Lowenberg served as a 2011 summer intern with the Keystone Research Center and Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

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