Even if it were a legit number, the 8.3% February unemployment rate, released today by the Labor Department, would be simply terrible—and unacceptable. It would still extend the longest streak of 8%-plus unemployment since the Great Depression. The U.S. economy hasn’t been below 8% unemployment since Obama took office in January 2009. And back in May 2007, unemployment was just 4.4%.
But, unfortunately, the true measure of U.S. unemployment is much, much worse.
1. If the size of the U.S. labor force as a share of the total population was the same as it was when Barack Obama took office—65.7% then vs. 63.9% today—the U-3 unemployment rate would be 10.8%.
2. But what if you take into the account the aging of the Baby Boomers, which means the labor force participation (LFP) rate should be trending lower. Indeed, it has been doing just that since 2000. Before the Great Recession, the Congressional Budget Office predicted what the LFP would be in 2012, assuming such demographic changes. Using that number, the real unemployment rate would be 10.4%.
3. Of course, the LFP rate usually falls during recessions. Yet even if you discount for that and the aging issue, the real unemployment rate would be 9.5%.
4. Then there’s the broader, U-6 measure of unemployment which includes the discouraged plus part-timers who wish they had full time work. That unemployment rate, perhaps the truest measure of the labor market’s health, is still a sky-high 14.9%.
5. Recall that back in 2009, White House economists Jared Bernstein and Christina Romer used their old-fashioned Keynesian model to predict how the $800 billion stimulus would affect employment. According to their model—as displayed in the above chart, updated—unemployment should be around 6% today.
6. As Ed Carson of Investor’s Business Daily points out, it’s been a whopping 49 months since the U.S. hit peak employment in January 2008. The average job recovery time since 1980 is 29 months, not including the current slump.
7. And how long might it take to get back to the 4.4% unemployment rate that existed under President George. W. Bush? Well, let’s say the goal was to get back to that rate in 5 years. And let’s assume the LFP rate returns to the CBO trend. According to a jobs calculator created by the Atlanta Fed, the U.S. economy would have to generate about 225,000 jobs a month, every month, for the next 60 months to hit that target. But few economist think we’ll see sustained job growth like that, especially since it assumes the economy would avoid recession during that span.
Indeed, JPMorgan just cut its GDP forecast for this quarter to 1.5% from 2.0% and says there is “some downside risk” to its second-quarter forecast of 2.5%.
The U.S. labor market is slowly getting healthier, but it’s a long way from being healthy.