A comprehensive look at unemployment figures

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Revelations that the nation’s unemployment rate reached its highest level in five years in August helped make the economy issue No. 1 on the campaign trail this week. But the situation is actually worse than the media or candidates would have you believe.

The monthly unemployment rate reported last Friday rose from 5.7 percent to 6.1 percent last month, the eighth successive monthly increase in job losses, accounting for 84,000 lost jobs in the one-month period and 605,000 lost jobs for the year.

However, those figures do not include people who have simply given up. Known in the jargon as “discouraged workers,” these people “have given a job-market related reason for not looking currently for a job,” in the words of the Department of Labor. In other words, they stopped looking for work because they couldn’t find any.

Those discouraged workers are a subset of a broader category: “marginally attached workers.” The definition is pretty technical; they are “persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past.” Basically, they are people who want a job, but are not looking for work right now.

Right now, the official unemployment rate is 6.1 percent. Including discouraged and marginally attached workers, that number rises to 7 percent. But there’s also another group to consider: people who are working “part time for economic reasons.” That is, people who would like to be working more than they are, but can’t find more work. With those people included in the tally, the rate goes up to 10.7 percent. This time last year, that number stood at 8.4 percent.

Thus, politicians, and the reporters who question them, might want to expand their scope beyond just the people who are looking for work to the people who have given up and the people who are working part time and desperately seeking full employment. A comprehensive solution to economic problems may require a more comprehensive sense of the problem.

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