The US unemployment rate in March remained stubbornly elevated at 6.7% in March with 10.5 million people out of work, showing job growth is good, but not good enough to make a dent in the long-term doldrums that have slowed economic growth since the financial crisis ended in 2009.
Only around 192,000 Americans found new jobs in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists had expected a much higher number – 200,000 to 225,000 new jobs – last month after the end of severe winter weather.
The numbers seem to confirm Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen's observation last month that the elevated rate of joblessness shows that the economic recovery is "far from complete".
Other measures of the unemployment crisis also barely budged during the month of March. Only about 63% of Americans are in the labor force, the lowest percentage since Jimmy Carter was president in 1978. About 2.2 million people were discouraged enough to give up looking for work, even though they wanted and were available for jobs.
About 36% of all unemployed Americans, or 3.7 million people, fall into the category of the long-term unemployed who have been unable to find a job for 27 weeks or more, even though they are still actively looking. The US Senate has been wrangling over a bipartisan bill to extend those workers' unemployment benefits, which ran out in December, but the outlook is not promising, according to political analysts. Even if the bill makes it through the Senate, it's expected to flop in the House.
"The US economy continues to create jobs at a good but not great pace that we should be seeing this far into the recovery," said Lindsey Group chief market analyst Peter Boockvar.
The new numbers from the BLS, which come with significant revisions to previous months, only made the overall unemployment picture murkier and harder to interpret. After disappointing unemployment numbers in January and February, many economists had guessed that a particularly savage winter was to blame.
After number-crunchers at the BLS had another chance to take a crack at the January and February unemployment surveys, "the winter hit was smaller than previously believed," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.
The polar vortex and other bad weather also dissipated as a plausible excuse for high unemployment in March, a month which showed much milder temperatures across the country and increased the likelihood that businesses would be open and ready to hire.
Yellen has made joblessness a key issue in the few weeks since her appointment to the most powerful financial post in the country, declaring in her first major speech in February that "too many Americans remain unemployed".
She also highlighted the stories of the unemployed in a speech last week as she took an unprecedented human tack for a Federal Reserve chair. "They are a reminder that there are real people behind the statistics," Yellen said, and their stories "tell us important things that the unemployment rate alone cannot."
Yellen has urged economists and market experts to stop looking at the unemployment rate, currently at 6.7%, as a measure of the health of the labor market or the economy. The unemployment rate has been steadily dropping from a peak of 10.2% in December 2009. That fall has been misleading, however, as it has represented more people dropping out of the labor force, where the government does not measure their jobs.
The falling rate of joblessness dominated many economic projections over the past few years because the Fed had promised to raise interest rates once the rate hit 6.5% – a threshold that the central bank backed away from last month. Yellen has argued for a larger range of measures of the health of the labor market, including labor-force participation.
Part of the Fed's mandate is to bring the country to full employment, using a toolboox of interest rates and stimulus measures. The Fed has been active – keeping interest rates near zero and pouring billions of dollars into the program known as quantitative easing – but the unemployment crisis continues.
Other measures of the health of the economy, including housing numbers, the trade deficit and consumer confidence, have also been dropping off.
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