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Jobless Numbers Don't Tell The Whole Story

Aug 6, 2011
Originally published on August 7, 2011 7:23 am

If the monthly jobless numbers aren't saying much, the longer-term employment trends in the United States are speaking volumes about the economy.

Those trends aren't often mentioned. The number of people who are long-term unemployed remains unchanged — more than 6 million people. The number of "discouraged workers" also remains the same. Those are people who are not looking for work because they believe there are no jobs.

The unemployment number is a fraction. The top number — the numerator — is "the number of people who are looking for a job and don't have one," explains Linda Barrington, a labor economist with the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University.

Take that number and divide it by the denominator, which "is everybody who is working or wants to be working." That math gives the percentage of people who are unemployed, which in July was 9.1 percent — almost 14 million people.

A lot people get left out of that number, though, including people who don't want to work and people who have given up looking because they don't expect to find a job.

"I know in my gut that finding a full-time job with benefits, for me, the chances are slim to none," says Jan Walsworth, who is about to turn 60.

She's about to become one of those 6 million people who are long-term unemployed. Walsworth spent 26 years as a homemaker and minister's wife. Now a divorced grandmother, she lives on a very small pension she got in the divorce.

Walsworth was laid off in February from her job in customer service. She helped people with computer problems.

"The thing that has maybe made this all the harder is the fact that that job fulfilled everything that I liked to do," Walsworth says. "I was helping people, a lot of the people that called were older, more my age. I was extremely successful. They could tell by my voice that I wasn't some 20-year-old with that impatience."

She says she hasn't had any serious responses to her job search and not having work has made her lonely and isolated.

"I miss talking to people. I go days sometimes and don't talk to anybody. I want to work again," Walsworth says, "but I have no real hope of ever doing so ... in a job that's meaningful to me."

Barrington says the long-term unemployed have to be asking whether or not the search is hopeless.

"I think for some people, there is a ratcheting-down that's going to have to take place. That may mean taking a pay cut; it may mean going back to school, and these are really difficult decisions," she says.

Barrington says it's not hopeless for the unemployed; they just have to hope for something different.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

The same with the number of discouraged workers as they're called. Those are people not looking for work because they believe there are no jobs. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON: To understand the unemployment rate, we need to understand the math behind the numbers.

LINDA BARRINGTON: I'm Linda Barrington, a labor economist with the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University.

GLINTON: Professor Barrington is going to help us out. We'll start with fractions. The unemployment number is a fraction. The top number is the numerator, and in this case...

BARRINGTON: Is the number of people who are looking for a job and don't have one.

GLINTON: Then you take that number and divide by the denominator. The number on the bottom...

BARRINGTON: Is everybody who is working or wants to be working.

GLINTON: That's where we get the percentage of people who are unemployed, which in July was 9.1 percent - almost 14 million people. But that's not the whole picture. A lot of people get left out.

BARRINGTON: People who don't have any interest in working or the people who have given up because they've looked long enough and they don't expect they're going to get a job, so they just stop.

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JAN WALSWORTH: I know in my gut that finding a full-time job with benefits, for me, the chances are slim to none.

GLINTON: Jan Walsworth turns 60 next week. She's about to become one of those six million people who are long-term unemployed. She spent 26 years as a homemaker and minister's wife. Now a divorced grandmother, she lives on a very small pension she got in the divorce. Walsworth was laid off in February from her job in customer service. If you called her up with a computer problem she could've helped you out.

WALSWORTH: The thing that maybe has made this all the harder is the fact that that job fulfilled everything that I liked to do. I was helping people, a lot of the people that called were older, more my age. I was extremely successful. They could tell by my voice I wasn't some 20-year-old with that impatience.

GLINTON: I met up with Walsworth at a restaurant near the Interstate in Jackson, Michigan. She says she hasn't had any serious responses to her job search and not having work has made her lonely and isolated.

WALSWORTH: I miss talking to people. I go days sometimes and don't talk to anybody. I want to work again, but I have no real hope of ever doing so in a meaningful - in a job that's meaningful to me.

GLINTON: Finding meaningful work or work that's comparable to what she used to have.

WALSWORTH: So is it hopeless?

GLINTON: That's a question labor economist Linda Barrington says the long-term unemployed have to be asking.

BARRINGTON: I think for some people, there is a ratcheting-down that's going to have to take place. That may mean taking a pay cut; it may mean going back to school, and these are really difficult decisions.

GLINTON: Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.