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A simple guide to reading those monthly jobs report numbers

The August jobs report, released Friday, was worse than expected, suggesting that the country added only 142,000 jobs last month. People who spend a lot of time thinking about such things fret and stew over the significance of this bit of data -- and usually will also point out that early numbers get moved up or down quite a bit. But for the casual observer? That number doesn't have a lot of context.

Previously, we've explained the numbers behind the numbers, the bit of context that is useful when thinking about how much better or worse the economy is doing. Go read that article if you want; it's fun. (I wrote it.)

But it's easy to lose sight of what numbers we're actually talking about. So here's a graph to answer that. We're talking about the darkest orange part of this graph, which continues to head upward. (All of the data here is from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis.)


Now the longer version. The entire graph above shows every American in some way or another. The lightest colored bar, at the top, is those Americans who aren't old enough to work yet. (There are a lot of footnotes and qualifiers that apply to most of the rest of this, we'll point out, so don't start writing your dissertations on this just yet.) The next bar is people who aren't in the labor force; they're retired or they're disabled or they're simply not looking for work. As you can see, from 2000 on, this bar grew a lot wider. The post that is linked to higher up explains some of what that means as context, but it's partly because Baby Boomers keep getting older.

Then there's that thin orange stripe. That's the number of people who can't find work. The unemployment rate -- the 6.1 percent figure announced Friday -- is the portion of the labor force that isn't employed, simply enough. As you can see, shortly before 2010 the unemployment gap got very wide. That was the recession.


And then there's the dark orange section, the people who are working. It ebbs and flows. Ripples. The wave is moving upward, which is good, but economists also pay attention to how it compares to how the overall population is increasing. And if the number of people working goes up slowly but the population goes up quickly, that's a problem. (And that's the second part of the post linked above.)

Or, in graph form:

If you want to play around with the numbers, here's a less-pretty interactive version of the data. Play around with it. Argue about it. Then get back to work.

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Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.

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