In speech, Obama seems to ‘get it’ that real unemployment rate is closer to 20% than the often reported 10% rate

December 8th, 2009 by Mike Hinshaw

In his most public acknowledgment of the true depths of unemployment, President Obama today said in a speech to the Brookings Institution that  he wants to use unexpected fiscal headroom in recovery-stimulus funds to create jobs.

As reported by CNN Obama said “he wants to give small businesses tax breaks for new hires and equipment purchases. He also wants to expand American Recovery and Reinvestment Act programs and spend some $50 billion more on roads, bridges, aviation and water projects.

“Obama did not give a price tag for his proposals but pointed out that there is more wiggle room in the federal budget since the 2008 financial system bailout program will cost $200 billion less than expected.”

Perhaps to be expected, some top Republicans are resistant to the idea–remember, it was the Senate where the bankruptcy “cram-down” provisions stalled after intense lobbying by the lending industry–saying any extra room in the recovery-stimulus funds should go toward the national deficit. To that, Obama responded, “”There are those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficits on the one hand, and investing in job creation and economic growth on the other–but this is a false choice.”

The timing could not be better–with all the gushing over the November jobs data, you’d think the jobless crisis has passed.

But, no, until major change takes hold, it’s still a matter of the same ol’, same ol’: We’ve merely been shedding jobs more slowly than we were.

But you wouldn’t know it by following  the mainstream media; here’s how The New York Times reported the data on December 5: “In the strongest jobs report since the recession began two years ago, the nation’s employers all but stopped shedding jobs in November, the government reported on Friday, and they appeared to be on the verge of finally rebuilding the work force.

“The sudden and unexpected improvement surprised even the most optimistic forecasters. Instead of yet another six-figure job loss, only 11,000 jobs disappeared last month and instead of another rise in the unemployment rate, it went down, to 10 percent from 10.2 percent in October.”

Of course, it is nice that the nation’s job loss is slowing down.

The bad news is that “official” unemployment’s going to 10 percent really means the “total” unemployment rate is 17.2 percent.

Yup, as it turns out, when unemployment was reported to have reached double-digits, at 10.2 percent, that figure applied only to out-of-work folks who are actively looking for jobs.

As explained December 1 at, ” It’s bad enough that the official unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 10.2 percent in October.

“But if you count people who have given up looking for a job – those who are really the most unemployed – and those who are working fewer hours than they would like, the jobless rate registers 17.5 percent.”

“That’s a record since the government began tabulating the statistic in 1994.”

This all comes from a table maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, right there in row “U-6,” in two data sets, four columns each, showing the grim rise, in data “Not seasonaly adjusted,” and four more columns of data that has been “seasonally adjusted,” the numerals just sort of laying there like shameful secrets in an unlocked but forgotten diary–row U-6 which is labeled, “Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.”

There it is, with one row of seasonally adjusted data (mislabeled as “Nov. 2008,” when it should be “Oct. 2008″), when total unemployment was 12.2 percent, having risen to 12.6 percent a month later. By Oct. 2009, it was 16.3 percent and by last month, up again to 16.4 percent.

The seasonally adjusted data look even worse, rising monthly from July through October: 16.3, 16.8, 17.0, to 17.5 percent; then it fell in Novemeber to 17.2 percent.

Perhaps the best signal of all was discussed in another piece from The Times, a December 4 “Economy” post that discusses an un-named indicator that “is part of the monthly survey done by the Institute for Supply Management, in which manufacturing companies are asked if their business is getting better or worse.”

Described as having proven “reliable in all 10 previous recessions since World War II,” the indicator is part of the I.S.M.’s “November results, showing that for the fourth consecutive month, more companies thought business was getting better than believed it was getting worse.

“A part of that survey asks whether companies are adding or subtracting workers. It showed more companies hiring than firing in both October and November,” so if “the I.S.M. indicator is right, that means that the 10.2 percent rate in October was the cyclical high.”

So that is good, right? Finally a drop in the rate…whew.

Still it’s staggering to learn that instead of the improvement from 10.2 to 10 percent, in fact total unemployment is actually closer to 20 percent…

Some newspapers have caught onto this, but don’t seem to be bothered, as evidenced by the many headlines like this one in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, by two AP reporters:  “Unexpected drop in jobless rate sparks optimism.” From there, it’s pretty much the same info that The Times’ would detail the next day.

For some, the route to a new job may very well entail a move to a different part of the country, as some areas, in various sectors, are coming back more quickly than others. At, you can watch a slideshow of the “Best U.S. Cities to Find a Job,” which not only lists the metro area but also includes the best sectors for each city.

For job stability, it looks like automobile repo work may be doing OK.  According to a December 7 Daily Finance report, “The ratio of U.S. auto loan borrowers who were 60 or more days past due on their payments increased in the third quarter over the second quarter from from 0.73% to 0.81%, according to Trans Union. The year-over-year delinquency rate at the national level increased by 1.25% in the third quarter.”

Although TransUnion expects the default rate to continue rising–projecting 0.9 percent by end of the year–to a 7.5 percent increase over the past year,  some data suggest that seeing a silver lining even here is warranted.

“Peter Turek, automotive vice president in TransUnion’s financial services group, believes the increased delinquency rate is indicative of a cyclical pattern. The good news is that seven states experienced a drop in their quarter-to-quarter delinquency rates while 22 showed a drop on a year-over-year basis. ‘The drop in delinquency is an indicator that some states could emerge from the recession sooner than others,’ Turek said in a statement released with the report.”

What it really sounds like is that the hard hit areas have been really, really hit hard, because nearly half the states have shown improvement: “So essentially, the market is shifting back to a pattern dependent on local economic conditions, with some states faring better than others. At least with 22 states seeing a drop in delinquencies over last year we can see there is some economic improvement in almost half the states.”

Still, the most encouraging sign amid all the bad news/good news is Obama’s public recognition: “Even though we have reduced the deluge of job losses to a relative trickle, we are not yet creating jobs at a pace to help all those families who have been swept up in the flood,” Obama said. “And it speaks to an urgent need to accelerate job growth in the short term while laying a new foundation for lasting economic growth.”


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