THE NEWS on unemployment in recent months has been that there isn't much news.
After its rapid drop during the first year and a half of the recovery, the unemployment rate leveled off last summer. Since that time it has bobbed around in a narrow range, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics' release Friday showing civilian unemployment last month at 7.3 percent, slightly higher than it was last November, but slightly lower than in January.
Of course, there was a time -- and not very long ago -- when unemployment exceeding 7 percent would have been big news, a veritable disaster. Between the Depression of the '30s and 1975, unemployment never climbed so high even at the trough of a recession. Now, however, that level is an accepted fact in an economy that, by most other measures, is humming along. Economists hope that with fewer young people entering the labor market and continued economic growth, the rate will drift downward in future years, but efforts to accelerate that trend are no longer considered a suitable concern for policy makers.
This month's unemployment release, however, contains a reminder that for certain groups the unemployment situation remains very bleak. BLS notes that, while the rate for white workers declined slightly, unemployment among blacks rose by 1.4 percentage points to a level of 16.3 percent. The sharpness of this rise, most of it associated with job losses among black adult men, may prove to be a temporary aberration. And black unemployment has declined sharply from its record peak in 1982. But, as a recent article in BLS' Monthly Labor Review points out, the enormous disparity between black and white unemployment rates has remained at historical highs in recent years.
Both that article and the new monthly numbers point to another worrisome trend. Despite big growth in defense manufacturing and construction, employment in goods production is still below its 1981 peak and actually declined last month -- not a surprising trend given the flood of imports stimulated by the overpriced dollar. Fortunately, continued growth in retail trade and other services keeps the employment totals looking healthy.
The unemployment totals will probably remain relatively unnewsworthy for some time to come. But it's worth remembering that the aggregate statistics don't reveal the disruption of lives and communities that lie beneath them, and that some of the biggest shifts in government policy during this administration -- the big cutbacks in job programs, the deemphasis of affirmative action efforts -- have surely had something to do with the severity of those dislocations.