The jobs numbers today contain undeniably good news. The economy added 243,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate went from 8.5 percent to 8.3 percent, essentially where we began when President Obama took office. But there are less obvious and more troubling data in the numbers as well.
Matt McDonald, a former Bush advisor who is now a communications consultant, e-mails me: “ The labor force is up by approximately 300,000 since Obama took office, but working-age population has grown by 9.6 million. And then the number of employed is down by 4.8 million. Participation has declined from 66.2% to 63.7%.” In other words, we have a large number of employable people who remain outside the workforce.
What we don’t know is whether they will return or remain permanently unemployable. McDonald tells me: “Looking at the data, I think we are probably seeing two things: The unemployment situation continues to improve, and three years of persistent unemployment has created structural problems where there may be a significant portion of Americans who have fallen into an ‘unemployable’ category.”
Large numbers of individuals and households with non-elderly, long-term unemployed people will have significant economic and social ramifications. The impact will be seen in wealth accumulation, family stability, home ownership, consumer spending and much, much more.
As a political matter, the president is in a bind if these people do return to the workforce, since that will push up the unemployment rate and give him some bad headlines. But as a practical matter, even if they don’t return to the workforce and aren’t counted, the absolute number of non-working Americans for whom the Obama economy has been a bust will remain high. That likely will be reflected in declining support for the president among low-income, middle-income and minority workers who are no longer participating as productive members of the U.S. economy. Put differently, if you are unemployed and looking for work, you’re not thrilled with Obama’s economic stewardship; If you are unemployed and have given up job hunting, you’re not thrilled with his performance, either. And if you are a young person, who was enamored of “hope and change” in 2008, who is now knee deep in college tuition debt with no prospects for a good-paying job, you are really not thrilled.
They may be popping champagne corks at the White House, but unless we can get job growth up, work participation up, and thereby increase economic activity, tax revenue and consumer spending, we are in for a long slog and an era of discontent with political leadership.