There Is No Jobs-Report Conspiracy: The Jobs Recovery Is Still Meh

Former GE CEO Jack Welch thinks the Bureau of Labor Statistics is cooking the books. He's wrong.


For the first time since he took office, unemployment is under 8 percent under President Obama. 

That's the political talking point that has Democrats cheering and Republicans questioning the September jobs report, but the reality is there isn't too much to cheer or question in it. The economy is still growing, but not fast enough to bring unemployment down fast enough. That was true in 2011 and it's true in 2012. That's not to say that the September jobs numbers weren't encouraging -- they were! -- but that a bit of perspective is in order. 

Let's start with the good news. The economy added 114,000 jobs in September, and added 86,000 more jobs than originally thought in July and August. Unemployment fell 0.3 percentage points to 7.8 percent, even with the labor force growing by 418,000. In other words, it fell because more people were working, not because more people gave up looking for work. 

This has some people scratching their heads. How did unemployment decline so much if we only added 114,000 jobs? Well,  there are actually two jobs numbers, and the second one showed us adding 873,000 jobs. Confused? Welcome to the wonderful world of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Here's how it works. The jobs number and the unemployment number are derived from different sources -- the former from a survey of employers and the latter from a survey of households. Both ask about jobs, but they don't always match up in any given month. The idea is the employer number is better at telling us how many new employees there, but it can't tell us how many people want work but can't find any. That's where the household number comes in -- it polls how many people have new jobs and how many people want jobs.

That leaves us with a big, fat 759,000 discrepancy for September. A number of conservatives have suggested the 873,000 household figure is wildly implausible, if not an outright conspiracy to help Obama on the part of the BLS. This is nonsense. As Greg Ip of The Economist points out, the employer and household numbers often diverge over the short-term, but they mostly match up over the long-term. And they still do if we look at the past three months. The employer survey showed job gains of 181,000 in July, 141,000 in August and 114,00 in September, for an average gain of 146,000. The household survey showed job losses of 195,000 in July, 119,000 in August, and job gains of 873,000 in September, for an average gain of 186,000. If you can't see the conspiracy there, well, you just might be mathematically literate.

That brings us to the bad news. If we take the same long view over the past few years, it's clear that not much has changed. Growth is painfully slow, just like before. In 2011 we created 153,000 jobs per month, and so far in 2012 we have created ... 146,000 jobs per month. It's barely been enough to keep up with population growth. Maybe that will change on its own. Maybe housing will keep picking up. Maybe QE3 will give us the kick we need. But maybe not soon enough. In the meantime, millions of people have been out of work for more than six months, and millions more young people are looking for a job good enough to pay off their student loans.

Maybe it's time Congress did something.
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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