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Last updateWed, 27 Dec 2017 12am

   201412metrocast

There IS more to the unemployment rate

Economists by nature tend to be a bit gloomy. As the old joke goes, they find the dark cloud behind every silver lining. And while yes, they can be a depressing bunch, they also are good, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, “…at telling the rest of the story.”  That’s the case with the current unemployment situation.

Many in Washington, D.C. act like unemployment is no longer a problem. The recovery is on track and America is getting back to work. That’s true as far as it goes. U.S. unemployment has dropped from nearly 10% six years ago to 6.2%. But, there is quite a bit more to the tale than that. And it’s all in the numbers.

Unemployment data is gathered through a careful process of interviews and data analysis. Curiously enough, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzes and reports the data, it’s the Census Bureau that gathers it. It’s a collaboration that’s worked well for a long time. But, there is more to the data than just a single unemployment statistic. There are several “levels” of unemployment. What we hear on the news is called U1 unemployment. These are people who have been unemployed for more than 15 weeks. However, there are several other levels of unemployment, U2 through U6, that measure longer-term unemployment.

The most telling is the U6 data, which covers all long-term unemployment. These include people who have been unemployed for over a year, people who have given up looking for work, part timers who want a full time job but can’t find one, and those who are considered “marginally unemployed.”  The latter includes workers employed at a series of temporary jobs, or odd jobs, but who would much prefer regular jobs.

The data is rather stark. In Virginia the unemployment rate, that U1 data I mentioned, those only unemployed a little while, is 5.4%.  King George’s unemployment is 6.0% and Westmoreland’s is 6.2%.  However, long term unemployment in Virginia, the U6 statistic, is 11.1%. Ouch!  Unfortunately the data isn’t available on a county-by-county basis. But, it’s safe to say that the biggest centers of long-term unemployment are in southern and southwest of Virginia. The old mill towns, like Danville and its surrounding counties, have a serious problem with long-term unemployment. As do the coalfields in southwest Virginia. Most of Northern Virginia, still relying on the powerful engine of federal spending, doesn’t begin to have the same sort of problem. And employment opportunities at Dahlgren, in both federal service and contracting help our area avoid the worst of the long-term unemployment problem.  But, statewide it’s clear, the recovery is by no means balanced.

Long term unemployment, while bad in Virginia, is even worse in several other states. Arizona has the largest long-term unemployment population at 15.9% of the labor force. Tennessee, with its coalfields stilled as well, comes in at 13.6% and not surprisingly, Michigan, where the car industry is a shadow of its former self, is at 14.7%.

This imbalance is likely to be with us for a long time. That’s something no one in Washington talks much about. Some of the regions will see improvement with new industries and the revival of old ones. But, some are likely to remain pockets of severe unemployment for a long time to come. This is a serious problem, one that shouldn’t be covered up, and one that nationally needs to be addressed. All is not rosy when it comes to our national unemployment levels. Like I said, economists can be a depressing bunch, but it’s still good to hear the rest of the story.
Reach Kerr at

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