How Many Americans Really Want Jobs?

This morning, we learned that the economy added 192,000 jobs as the unemployment rate ticked down to 8.9%. That put the number of unemployed Americans at 13.7 million -- but this doesn't tell the entire story. This number does not take into account Americans who, for various reasons, are not considered in the labor force. Some of them still want jobs right now, even by the Bureau of Labor Statistics' standards. What would the picture look like if we include these Americans?

For starters, how many were there? In February, BLS estimates 6.4 million Americans want jobs now, but are not considered part of the workforce. They are not included in the tally of unemployed Americans.

If you add these additional workers into the number of unemployed, you find that just over 20 million Americans want a job right now, but do not have one. That's obviously a much grimmer picture than the 13.7 million that the headline number suggests -- it's nearly 50% higher.

This new calculation of Americans who want a job also shows a much larger portion of the nation struggling to find work, compared to the 8.9% unemployment rate. The portion of Americans who want a job was 12.6% in February.

Some charts will help us better understand how the trend for the number of Americans who want a job has changed. First, here's the number of Americans who are not in the labor force, but want a job now, since 2007:

not in want job 2011-02.png

It's pretty easy to see how this number has grown. Since January 2007, it's up by 1.9 million. It's also worth noting that this number hasn't declined much since jobs began growing last year. In fact, it remains higher than it was a year earlier, despite ticking down a bit in January.

Next, let's look at the total number of Americans who want a job including those not in the labor force and those considered technically unemployed by BLS:

total want job 2011-02.png

This is a pretty interesting chart, because it shows the total number of Americans who want a job has declined, but not very dramatically.

And here's another chart, this time showing a re-calculated rate of unemployment, consisting of the portion of Americans who want a job, whether technically considered in the labor force or not. The headline unemployment rate is included for comparison:

rate want job 2011-02.png

Again, you can see that the reported unemployment rate has been declining slightly faster than the alternative measure that includes all Americans who want a job.

If you assume that BLS has good statistical estimation methods, then this broader measure of Americans who want a job should include the all of them -- even those who are discouraged, have seen their unemployment insurance run out, or are otherwise jobless but want to work. It does not, however, include Americans that are forced to work part time because they cannot find full-time work. That would likely add several million more Americans to the grand total of underemployed people, though they would not truly be unemployed.

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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