The Labor Department issued its monthly report on the health
of the nation's labor force on Friday, but for millions of
Americans, the unemployment rate has lost its meaning as a gauge
of their well-being. For them, it will take some measure not yet
invented to accurately capture their experiences.
By the Labor Department's standard, a Harvard graduate who
once owned a business and now sells diet formula door-to-door is
employed, not unemployed. So is a technician forced out of IBM
and now stacking shopping carts.
The unemployment rate has declined to 6.8 percent in October
from 7.8 percent in June 1992, but the sheer fact of holding a
job does not mean, as it once did, that a jobholder feels safely
ensconced in the economy.
"We fasten on the unemployment rate as a guide to the
economy," said James Hechtman, a University of Chicago labor
economist. "But the fact is that it was never all that
satisfactory, and now it is much less so."
Measuring the labor force has become similar to measuring the
windchill factor in weather reporting. The unemployment rate _ up
one tenth of a point since September _ is the "temperature" on a
And the buffeting that people are taking in lost job status,
in lost income and damage to self-confidence represents a stiff,
cold wind. Various efforts are now being made to clock this
rising wind. Even the Labor Department notes its existence.
"We are telling people who ask that the unemployment rate
should not be viewed as a hardship measure," said John Bregger,
an economist in the Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. "The
unemployment rate is only what it pretends to be: the proportion
of the labor force out of work and hunting for jobs."
While times have changed, the Labor Department's statistical
tools haven't. The monthly survey of 60,000 households that the
department uses to determine the unemployment rate dates back to
the 1940s, when jobholders generally enjoyed more security than
they do today, and wages for most people went up each 9ear by
more than inflation, instead of failing to do so _ the case
In such a world, the questions asked by the interviewer were
easy to answer, and much more representative of actual
If people said that, during the week before the survey, they
had worked for a company or for the government or for themselves,
as doctors, plumbers and the like, then the interviewer put them
down as jobholders.
Or they told the interviewer that they had not held a job the
previous week, but had looked for one. That qualified them as
unemployed. And in those days, a person without a job looked for
work and usually found it. …