March unemployment rate unchanged at 9.7%

Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010; 9:29 AM

The official U.S. unemployment rate in March remained unchanged at 9.7 percent, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday.

A total of 162,000 new jobs were created on non-farm payrolls--the biggest one-month jobs gain in the past three years, but still well below what economists were predicting.

Most forecasters had expected about 200,000 new jobs to be created in March. The difference is largely attributable to fewer census workers than expected being hired by the government. But analysts say the numbers also illustrate the slow and wobbly nature of the ongoing economic recovery.

Christina Roemer, chair of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, said the monthly employment report offered evidence of "gradual labor market healing."

"...[I]t is obvious that the American labor market remains severely distressed," Roemer said in a statement. "...While this is the most positive jobs report we have had in three years, there will likely be bumps in the road ahead."

More than 6.5 million Americans have been unemployed for six months or longer--a record high, the data showed.

President Obama, who often travels on days jobs numbers are announced, celebrated the news with fewer caveats than usual, The Post's Anne E. Kornblut reported from North Carolina, where she is with the president.

"I've often had to report bad news during the course of this year, as the recession wreaked havoc on people's lives. But today is an encouraging day," Obama told workers at Celgard LLC, an advanced battery technology manufacturer in Charlotte, N.C. whose warehouse he toured on Friday morning. "We learned that the economy actually produced a substantial number of jobs instead of losing a substantial number of jobs," he said, drawing applause.

"This month, more Americans woke up, got dressed and headed to work in an office, a factory, a storefront," he said. "More folks are feeling the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes with a hard-earned and well-deserved paycheck."

In visiting Celgard, Obama sought to highlight the effectiveness of his economic policies. With help from the administration's stimulus package, the company is hiring 300 new workers in North Carolina ┬┐ and expanding its operations making batteries that run more fuel-efficient cars.

"Before I took office, we had the capacity to make less than 2 percent of the world's lithium ion batteries," Obama said. "In the next 5 years, on the trajectory we're now on, we're going to be able to make 40 percent of the batteries right here in the United States of America."

That, he said, is an argument for the stimulus package. "Next time somebody asks you at the grocery store, 'What did the recovery act do?', you can tell them one of the things it helped do is expand┬┐an entire industry."

The Commerce Department expects to hire at least 600,000 temporary workers this year to staff the 2010 Census survey. Forecasters expected a bump of 100,000 census hires in March. But only 48,000 were hired. In other sectors, some 40,000 temporary health service workers were hired in March, while the financial sector shed 21,000 jobs.

Average hourly earnings dropped 0.1 percent in March after climbing 0.2 percent in February.

Forecasters had expected the unemployment rate to remain unchanged at 9.7 percent. Analysts say it will be difficult for this economy to start creating a meaningful number of new jobs until the weekly new jobless claims number gets down into the low 400s and stays there. The number of new jobless claims filed last week dipped slightly, down 6,000 to 439,000.

The unemployment rate hit its recent high of 10.1 percent in October. Economists and forecasters expect the rate to hover near 10 percent for at least the remainder of the year. The White House does not expect the rate to return to its healthy-economy level of 5 percent until at least 2017. Following the end of each previous modern recession, the unemployment rate has stayed high for months, if not quarters,

The unemployment rate has become a political issue for the Democratic Party, which for now controls both the White House and Congress. The party faces pressure to create new jobs without incurring further wrath from Republicans and other deficit hawks, who say that additional government-subsidized stimulus and jobs bills will add dangerously to the budget deficit and national debt.

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