Over the first half of the year, the economy has added 1.2 million jobs to the workforce, an average of 200,000 a month. Over the past 12 months, 2.3 million jobs have been added.
That is steady progress — and only the latest evidence of an economic recovery that is moving forward month by month. It was greeted as such, taken as a sign that the Federal Reserve might begin to taper off its monetary stimulus for the economy early this fall.
But other numbers from Friday tell a less-positive story. Despite the growth in jobs, the unemployment rate held steady at 7.6 percent, because more people were looking for work than in the previous month. And 332,000 more people said they were working part time because of economic conditions, rather than by choice. At the same time, long-term unemployment remains acute. Of the 11.8 million unemployed workers, more than 4.3 million have been out of work for 27 weeks or more.
Overall growth rates during the past six months have been tepid. The economy grew at less than 1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, and the latest revision of first-quarter growth this year reduced the rate from 2.4 percent annually to 1.8 percent.
Based on public-opinion surveys, Americans feel better about the economy than they did a year or certainly two years ago. The economy still tops the list when people are asked to identify the most important issue facing the country, but not to the extent it once did. (Gallup reported last month that dissatisfaction with government in Washington has risen, however.) Consumer confidence also has risen.
Housing prices are up, and so are home purchases. And the stock market, although it has retrenched somewhat in the past month, has advanced smartly. For some Americans, the economic recovery is real and robust.
That relieves the pressure on politicians. They can worry less about the economy without paying a price. But nearing the five-year mark since the economy tanked in the fall of 2008, it’s clear that producing more and better-paying jobs remains the biggest challenge facing the country’s leaders.
The reality is that the economy isn’t employing nearly as large a share of the potential workforce as it once did. Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute offered an analysis Friday that compared the percentage of the working-age population employed today with the levels before the recession. In early 2007, 63.3 percent of working-age Americans had a job. The latest report pegs that percentage at just 58.7 percent.
Shierholz also looked at the ratio for those of prime working age, a somewhat fairer measure of conditions then and now. The percentage of people ages 25 to 54 who were employed in early 2007 was 80 percent. It dropped to 74.8 percent in late 2009. Although it has risen since then, it is still just 75.9 percent.