We economics writers can be an excitable bunch, eager to draw big conclusions from thin data. Huge monthly job gains of more than 200,000 like we saw this winter? The economy is finally achieving liftoff! A piddling 88,000 added in March? It's falling off a cliff!
But there's been a surprisingly consistent theme through the last three years: Any attempt to divine a meaningful change in the pace of the expansion has turned out to be wrong. There have been no double dips into recession, despite a clockwork-like speculation that there will be whenever a couple of months of soft data come out. There has been no speedup into a full-throated growth that would bring us back to a strong economy.
In April, the United States added 165,000 jobs. Over the last 12 months, it has averaged 168,000 a month. Over the last 24 months, it has averaged 184,000. Over the last 36 months, it has averaged 162,000. For three years straight, any variation from the basic trend has been offset by a variation in the other direction in the following months.
Similarly, the unemployment rate has been moving downward glacially but consistently. This time three years ago, the jobless rate was 9.9 percent, which fell to 9 percent in April 2011, 8.1 percent in April 2012, and now 7.5 percent in April 2013. Part of the drop is due to people leaving the labor force entirely, and the pace of decline is too slow if you are among the 12 million unemployed. But it is also steady.
These are exactly the trends you would expect to see in an economy expanding at a 1.5 percent to 2 percent annual rate, which is what has been happening. There is no disconnect between what the jobs surveys are telling us about the recovery and what other surveys are showing.
What to make of it all? This kind of growth cannot boost the economy toward full employment in the near future. If this keeps up, no one will be singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" anytime soon. If you're living in Britain or most of continental Europe or Japan, the U.S. track record is one to envy, but we Americans have higher expectations for how our economy ought to perform.
Second, the fact that the overall job growth numbers have been so stable does not mean there isn't some real churn in the U.S. workforce. In the earliest phase of the recovery, manufacturing jobs were a major driver of job creation, but that didn't turn out to be a longer-term trend; it was only a partial reversal of the steep declines of the recession. Now, job creation is entirely confined to the services sector: Last month, manufacturing had no net change in employment, construction lost 6,000 jobs, and even mining and logging was a net negative.
Government employment, meanwhile, stayed on its long swoon. There were declines in federal government jobs excluding the post office (down 4,900 positions), the postal service (down 3,500), in state government (down 1,000) and in local government (down 2,000). Those numbers aren't huge in a country of 160 million workers, but they are a sign that austerity is biting at all levels of government.
That leaves one sector to fuel the job creation train: private-sector services. In April, there were strong gains in leisure and hospitality, retail jobs and professional and business services. And health care has been a mainstay of the expansion.
This isn't a good economy. By a lot of measures it's terrible. Still, we should note what we have achieved: a durable kind of recovery that, if it can go for several more years, will eventually get us out of the muck. But it is also slow enough that the human toll of the crisis will be long and enormous.