Unemployment Rate: 9.7 Percent. Underemployment: Far Higher

By Haq, Husna | The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 2010 | Go to article overview

Unemployment Rate: 9.7 Percent. Underemployment: Far Higher


Haq, Husna, The Christian Science Monitor


The unemployment rate doesn't count those who have stopped looking for work or part-time workers who want full-time employment. In February, underemployment stood at 16.8 percent.

The unemployment rate last month in the United States was better than expected, holding steady at 9.7 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported on Friday.

What the report didn't say: Almost 17 percent of Americans are underemployed, according to the BLS. A recent Gallup poll puts the figure at almost 20 percent.

This means that nearly 30 million Americans are unemployed or working fewer hours than they'd like, which could put a big drag on any economic recovery.

"The unemployment numbers only show the tip of the iceberg," says Ed Farrell, director of the Consumer Reports National Research Center. "The underemployed are discouraged, and their impact on the economy is grossly underestimated."

Record underemployment rates

The underemployment rate in February - 16.8 percent to be exact - was among the highest rates that the BLS has recorded since it started tracking the statistic in 1994, says Stacey Standish, a press officer for the BLS.

"It peaked in October '09 at 17.4 percent," Ms. Standish says.

The BLS's definition of underemployment includes three categories: the unemployed who are still looking for work, the unemployed who have stopped looking for work, and those who are employed part time but would like to be employed full time.

The reason it's so high, says Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is something many Americans know: Jobs took a particularly hard beating during this recession.

"A healthy job market in the US is one in which ... unemployment is around 3-1/2 to 4 percent," Mr. Burtless says. "In this particular recession, the number of people affected by unemployment has been extremely high."

He adds, "The hours of work have slumped, which means we do have an exceptionally high number of people in part-time positions who want to be full-time. …

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