March’s Jobs Growth

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

The federal department of labor's monthly jobs report for March, released earlier this month, delivered the best employment news the country has had in three years—news so longed for it appears to have gone to some analysts' heads.

"Interest rates rose sharply,"one newspaper report of early April began, because, it vigorously declared, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tabulations "suggested that all facets of an economic recovery were finally in place."

That sanguine outlook was seconded by one money manager who confidently proclaimed that "The jobless-recovery theories are now unquestionably baseless."

What spurred such optimism was the federal agency's finding that the American economy had created 308,000 new jobs in March and that the overall unemployment rate had held at 5.7 percent.

That number, which marked the highest monthly job-growth total since an eight-month-long recession beset the economy in March 2001, was more than twice the amount most economists in and out of government had predicted for March.

The stock market, which had come to dread the monthly federal employment reports for the drag they produced on economic gains, and thus, corporate earnings and stocks, greeted the news with gusto, as did other sectors.

But, albeit March's good numbers, the question looms: Does one good month a jobless recovery make?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

There are other numbers that should not be forgotten in any assessment of the status of the nation's economic recovery and jobs situation, numbers which lead to a significantly more complicated perspective.

For one thing, it's sobering to remember that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a Washington-based think tank, today's economy contains more than two million fewer jobs than when employment last peaked in February 2001. The number of Americans out of work was the same in March as it had been in February: 8.4 million.

Further, columnist Paul Krugman recently noted that during the boom years of the 1990s, the economy added an average of 236,000 jobs per month—but there were 23 months during that span when monthly job-growth exceeded 300,000. Krugman said it would take about four years of reports as good as the one for March 2004 before jobs would be as easy to find as in January 2001.

Another alarming set of numbers can be found in the predicament of the long-term unemployed: those jobless workers who've exhausted both their regular unemployment benefits and those from the temporary federal unemployment benefits program. Since December, when Congress let that program lapse, about 1.1 million unemployed have fallen through what once was—and what still needs to be—an essential safety net.

CBPP estimates that this number is increasing now by 80,000 Americans a week, in part because the average length of unemployment now is at its highest level in two decades, and the percentage of the long-term unemployed—those jobless for at least 27 weeks—has risen significantly since last year.

Last March nearly 22 percent of the jobless were out of work for 27 weeks or more. Now, that figure is almost 24 percent.

Finally, even amidst last month's job growth, which kept the overall unemployment rate flat at 5.7 percent, the black unemployment rate jumped substantially to 10.2 percent, from February's 9.8 percent (the Latino unemployment rate remained flat at 7.4 percent).

Compared to the March job-growth increases, this broader set of job statistics confirms the caution voiced by Roger Ferguson, vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, who said that while March figures are "an encouraging sign … the question of whether this improvement is fundamental and durable will take some time to answer."

These broader set of statistics also underscores the sobering economic reality confronting Black America that the National Urban League has presented in two recent publications.

A study by the League's Institute for Opportunity and Equality examined the dramatic ways the racial and ethnic disparity of joblessness—such as the widening of the black-white unemployment rate—is showing itself.

And in our scholarly journal, The State of Black America 2004 we released last month, we unveiled our first-ever Equality Index in order to quantify the "equality gaps"that persist between the status of black Americans and that of white Americans.

What our Equality Index, tabulated from examining the status of black Americans in the five areas of education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement, showed is that black Americans stand at less than three-quarters—73 percent, to be exact—of where White America stands.

The remaining gap is the progress that has to be made before one can declare that black Americans and white Americans live in a society in which race produces no negative accounting. Significantly, the largest gap of the five components of the Equality Index is in the Economic Index—where the economic status of blacks is but 56 percent that of whites.

We should always remember to keep in mind the tales told—and the challenges presented—by these broader statistics of the American economy and the American workforce if we want to gain a truer perspective on just how deep the nation's "economic recovery"really is.

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