As the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced a fall in the unemployment rate from 9.0 to 8.6 percent, it noted that a contraction of the labor force accounted for more than half the reduction in the number of unemployed. As the following table shows, this represents the continuation of long-standing trends (December 2007 represents the start of the Great Recession; Barack Obama took office in January 2009; November 2011 is the latest report, out December 2):
Three points are worthy of note.
First: Despite the growth of the working-age population over the past four years, the labor force (roughly, the sum of those employed plus job-seekers) has not expanded. For various reasons, more and more Americans have been dropping out of the labor force. If Americans of working age were participating in the labor force at the same rate as they were at the onset of the recession, the labor force would be nearly 5 million people larger, and unemployment would be significantly worse in both absolute and percentage terms.
Second: Despite the modest economic recovery since the recession ended in mid-2009, total employment remains more than 5.5 million below the level of 2007 and about 1.6 million below where it was when President Obama took office.
Third: To regain full employment (5 percent, which happens to be the same as the level when the recession began) with the pre-recessionary labor force participation rate, we would need 150.7 million jobs—10.1 million more than we have today. That’s a reasonable measure of the hole we’re still in, two and a half years since the official end of the recession.
The American people are unlikely to cheer up about the economy until we get appreciably closer to the top of the hole.
Bill Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.