A Better Joblessness Rate

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Monday, February 11, 2008

In his Feb. 6 op-ed, "Why It's Not the Economy," Robert J. Samuelson played down the accomplishments of the New Deal, saying that unemployment in 1939 "was still 17 percent."

That unemployment rate was not based on the kind of survey that we use today. It was calculated retrospectively by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and counted people on government work relief as unemployed. In fact, such people were employed, paid, and producing goods and services including some public works that are still in existence.

Michael Darby, a distinguished economist who served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, published an article in 1976 recalculating the unemployment rate excluding work relief. In 1939, he calculated, it was not 17 percent but 11.3 percent -- not wonderful by today's standards but half what it had been in 1932.

CORNELIA STRAWSER

Washington

The writer is editor of the annual Business Statistics.


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