Jobless rate up slightly, and that’s a good thing

By May 12, 2011

The issue: We’re on a long road to recover the more than 8 million jobs lost in the recession

Normally, an uptick in the unemployment rate would not be considered good news. But it is a peculiarity of the economic recovery that last month’s increase in the unemployment rate from 8.8 percent, a two-year low, to 9 percent is actually cause for optimism.

People who are not actively looking for work are not counted in the employment figures, but as the job market improves, people re-enter it. Until they actually get a job, they are counted as unemployed.

THE JOB MARKET is improving — not fast enough, but it’s headed in the right direction. Last month, the economy added 244,000 jobs, the most since last May, and, more importantly, that number won the all-important game of expectations. Economists had predicted a more modest increase of 186,000.

And in a week that seems to have brought nothing but good news to the Obama White House, the employment figures for March and February were revised upward to 235,000 and 221,000, respectively.

A senior economist for JPMorgan interviewed by Bloomberg News said of the latest report: “This is good news and it’s getting better. People increasingly are becoming more confident we’re on a recovery track.”

The White House noted that the improvement came despite “head winds” like high oil and food prices and the economic disruption caused by the earthquake in Japan.

The new jobs figure would have been even higher except that government payrolls shrank for the sixth straight month.

GOOD AS THEY ARE, the April numbers are only one step on a long road. The country lost more than 8 million jobs in the recession, and at the pace of April’s recovery it will take 2 1/2 years to recover them.

There are 13.7 million Americans out of work, and almost half have been that way for at least 27 weeks. Even there, however, the percentage of those long-term unemployed fell from 45.5 percent to 43.4 percent.

The percentage of adults in the work force, either working or looking for work, is 64.2 percent, the lowest participation in a quarter-century. As the economy improves, participation could be expected to improve, meaning we could have more good news in the form of slight increases in the unemployment rate.

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