Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Keith Hall discusses unemployment data

Keith Hall of BLS
Keith Hall of BLS (Courtesy Of Bureau Of Labor Statistics (Bls) - Courtesy Of Bureau Of Labor Statistics (Bls))
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By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

Each month, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its estimate of U.S. unemployment.

And the debate begins again.

At 8:30 a.m. on Friday, the Labor Department plans to release the April unemployment rate. We'll learn whether the continuing -- if unsteady -- economic recovery has eaten into the 9.7 percent rate reported in March. Unemployment is down from its peak of 10.1 percent in October, but it has remained stubbornly high.

The government has several classifications for people who are not working full time, and that's where the debate starts. The number that will get all the attention Friday is the official unemployment rate. To be counted as officially unemployed, a person must be out of work and have looked for work in the previous four weeks. That's the 9.7 percent number. Or, in Bureau of Labor Statistics parlance, the U-3 figure.

Critics say this number is inaccurate because it doesn't include two key categories: people who want to work full time but can only find part-time work, and those who have grown so discouraged, they've given up looking for work.

If you add those two categories on top of the official unemployment rate, the number you got for March was an eye-popping 16.9 percent. That's the U-6 number. It's down from its recent high of 17.3 percent in December. Troublingly, however, it has increased over the past two months, even as the official rate has stabilized.

The man in charge of gathering these numbers and crunching them is Keith Hall, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hall, 53, is an economist and a federal government lifer. Prior to taking over BLS in January 2008, Hall worked at Treasury, Commerce, the International Trade Commission and was chief economist for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. So he knows his numbers.

Q. The BLS surveys a rotating sample of 60,000 households each month to help arrive at its unemployment figures. Why is that method used?

We want to get some consistency with the sample and we want something that's comparable over time. It's the same measure we had when the survey began back in the 1940s.

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