Issue of the week: Is the employment picture brightening?

The monthly jobs report was “full of good news,” but some commentators say hiring will remain sluggish.

Finally we get a monthly jobs report that’s “full of good news,” said Matthew Yglesias in The Bureau of Labor Statistics last week announced that the U.S. created 165,000 new jobs in April, shrinking the unemployment rate to 7.5 percent from 7.6 percent in March. But the most heartening news was that the agency revised its numbers for February up from 236,000 jobs created to 332,000, and even “the initially estimated-as-dismal March report” improved from 88,000 jobs to a less drastic 138,000. Behind these numbers, the real movement continues to be “the rebalancing of the American economy out of public-sector and into private-sector production.” With government hiring bound to remain sluggish thanks to the federal sequester and tight state budgets, even these encouraging numbers don’t suggest that a robust economy is just around the corner.

That’s hardly surprising, said Neil Irwin in Our economy is growing at 1.5 to 2 percent annually—enough to bring the unemployment rate down “glacially but consistently,” but not enough to “boost the economy to full employment in the near future.” Throughout this tepid recovery, we’ve seen considerable volatility in the workforce. Early on, manufacturing jobs drove job creation, but that turned out to be a minor trend. “Now, job creation is entirely confined to the services sector”—leisure and hospitality, retail, professional and business services, and health care. This is far from a good economy, and in many ways it’s terrible. But we’ve achieved “a durable kind of recovery that, if it can go for several years, will eventually get us out of the muck.” It’s just too bad that the human cost of such a slow grind is bound to be “long and enormous.”

Wall Street perked up over these numbers, said John Crudele in the New York Post, but they don’t really mean that much. The Labor Department makes many outdated assumptions about how the labor market works in different seasons, so the April numbers are “chockablock with phantom jobs,” and a lot of the real ones are only temporary and part-time positions. Thanks to “the payroll tax hike and lower government spending,” the economy is actually cooling, but you can’t see that because of the way the government fudges its numbers. That’s dangerous. These statistics affect everything, from the Federal Reserve’s interest rates to new taxes proposed by Congress or the president, and even your boss’s confidence—meaning “whether or not you get a raise.”

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This jobs report isn’t just bad, it’s “ominous,” said Louis Woodhill in Dig in and you’ll see that April’s numbers “describe a mass replacement of full-time workers with part-time employees, coupled with a fall in the length of the average workweek.” And that is “precisely what you would expect, given the perverse incentives baked into Obamacare,” which lets smaller employers avoid insurance costs by using part-timers. We are now in the fifth consecutive month in which the proportion of full-time jobs fell—a big red flag that could signal impending recession. So don’t be fooled by these numbers. “For workers, there has been no economic recovery at all.”

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