The B.L.S. Numbers Game: Playing Down Unemployment

By Serrin, William | The Nation, January 23, 1989 | Go to article overview

The B.L.S. Numbers Game: Playing Down Unemployment


Serrin, William, The Nation


Every month, the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics releases unemployment figures for the Pittsburgh area, of which this community- for decades America's most famous steel town -is a part In October the jobless rate was 5.6 percent, reepresenting 53,000 people. Such numbers are greeted warmly by many in the area, are seen as proof that Pittsburgh has thrown off its smoky, old-fashioned manufacturing image and stepped smartly into a more modern economy based on office work, service jobs and high technology. The national unemployment figures for November-5.4 percent, or 6.6 million workers -are also cheered. Economists, bankers, securities analysts and editorial writers say the statistics reflect a vibrant, innovative, job-providing economy.

However, thousands are not counted in the statistics that many are so giddy about. In fact, the monthly percentages of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (B.L.S.) are of little help in measuring the true unemployment and marginal employment that characterize so much of the U.S. economy. Indeed, the statistics actually mask unemployment and the related stress they were established to gauge. By conservative estimates, some 16.5 million people in the United States are unemployed and want to work, or work part time but want full-time jobs. That is an unemployment rate of nearly 14 percent, not 5 .4 percent, as the B.L.S. would have us believe and still other jobless people could be added in.

Those who have no jobs but have not looked for work in four weeks, believing they will be unable to find it, are not counted as unemployed by the B.L.S. These men and women are categorized as "discouraged workers." The bureau estimatesthat there are cuff enfly 930,000 such people nationwide. Others say they would like to work but are not seeking it because they lack child care or are ill or disabled. They form an even larger bloc not counted as unemployed and there are 4 million such people, according to the B.L.S. Persons forced to retire early but who in many cases would have worked another ten or even twenty years are not counted either. Moreover, the B.L.S. regards even one hour of work a week as employment, thus giving millions of people only marginally employed - say, as a school crossing guard the same status as full-time workers.

The B.L.S. says 5 million Americans now work part time because they cannot find full-time jobs, This category has risen sharply in recent years as employers have recognized that these "contingent workers" will often put up with lower wages, few or sometimes no benefits and flexibility of hours and assignments -in short, constitute a meeker work force. Nor do unemployment statistics reveal the thousands of people who have lost their jobs and found new ones at substantially lower wages and benefits.

The B.L.S. numbers also disguise the fact that the unemployed are not the same individuals year to year. In 1986, when the average annual unemployment rate was 6.2 percent, 14.3 percent of the Labor force experienced unemployment; that is, 18.5 million people out of the 130 million employed, on average, during the year. Also, about two -thirds of the jobless are not currently receiving unemployment benefits. This is due, among other things, to tighter compensatory restrictions imposed by the Reagan Administration's effort to hold down unemployment costs.

The B.L. S., established in 1884, is an extremely conscientious, professional organization whose statistics are of considerable importance to journalists, government planners, economists and others. The bureau's U-7 rate, which does include discouraged workers and measurements of others seeking part-time and full-time work, depicts the extent of unemployment more accurately than the B. …

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