A look at US unemployment

Summary:  a look at the US labor force.  The numbers tossed around in the news media give little perspective on the scale of the problem.

These are the numbers from the Census Household Population survey for May (table A-1) released 4 June 2010.  All rounded to the nearest million.

  • 237 million — the civilian non-institutional population, adults 16+ years old (16 million are 16-19 years old).
  • 154 million are in the labor force (6 are ages 16-19). 
  • 139 million have jobs (4 are ages 16-19)
  • 27 million of those jobs are part-time jobs; 9 million of those with part-time jobs would prefer full-time jobs.
  • 14 million of the labor force are unemployed:  1 million  quit, 9 million were fired, 5 million entered or re-entered the labor force (2 million are ages 16-19).
  • 1 million have become discouraged and stopped looking.

This gives us various measures of unemployment depending on definition of the labor force and unemployed, ranging from 9.7% to 16.6% (table A-15).  None of these measures are more “right” than the others.  None are easily comparable to those of the great depression (the government began measuring unemploying in the 1940’s; earlier numbers are estimates).

The median duration of unemployment is 23 weeks.  Almost half of those unemployed (7 million) have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more (table A-12).

New claims for unemployment have been stable at roughly 463 thousand/week — an annual rate of 24 million per year.  Only aprox 80% of workers are covered by UI (no independent contractors and self-employed), and the unemployment rate is higher for uncovered workers.  So the job loss rate is probably running at aprox 30 million/year.  This shows considerable stress on the US economy.

The Democratic Party is toast in the November elections if employment does not increase soon.


  • There are 7 million people unemployed for over 26 weeks, 4.4% of the labor force.  The previous post-Depression peak was 2.6% in 1983.  Aprox 1 million unemployed workers have given up seeking work, and are classifed as “discourage” and not counted as unemployed.  They could logically be added to the total of both unemployed and labor force (numerator and denominator of unemployment rate, which would increase the long-term unemployment rate to 5.2%.
  • The current population survey employment data has a discontinuity in January 1994, when the questionnaire and definitions were revised.  As a result the number of discouraged workers was cut in half.  If we double the number of today’s discouraged workers from 1 to 2 million, the LT unemployment rates rises to 5.8%.
  • This revision had little effect on the headline unemployment number (until our currently extraordinary situation).  For more about this revision (which is widely misunderstood), see “BLS introduces new range of alternative unemployment measures“, John E. Bregger and Steven E. Haugen, Monthly Labor Review, October 1995.

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