Coming into the year, the unemployment level in the U.S. was one of the most worrisome topics from coast to coast. Now we’re leaving the year, and it still is.
The official unemployment rate, as measured by the federal government’s Department of Labor, remains stubbornly stuck close to the double-digit mark. Despite continuing efforts from Washington to stabilize the economy and convince businesses that better days are on the horizon, joblessness has averaged between 9.5 and 9.7 percent.
A broader measure — which includes workers employed only part time but who want full-time jobs, as well as those who have given up on getting hired — paints an even bleaker picture. When these workers are counted, the full unemployment and underemployment rate reached a high of 17.5 percent.
The National Bureau of Economic Research says that the recession — which started in December 2007 and to which we’ve grown accustomed — has ended. In June 2009, to be precise. Ordinary Americans, by and large, aren’t buying it. The wounds from the downturn are still fresh, if not getting worse in some areas, while the fear that the next paycheck could be the last one is rampant and not wholly unfounded.
The good news is that the situation is showing signs of improvement, as demonstrated by a recent government report indicating upbeat job growth in October. Still, we find ourselves in something of a stalemate, and we need more evidence of a sustained turnaround. Businesses don’t want to hire until they’re confident the economy is on the mend, but Americans are afraid to spend on nonessential goods and services for fear of racking up debt just before losing their livelihoods. Consumer spending is responsible for a large percentage of the nation’s economic activity, and until it picks up, businesses aren’t likely to see the recovery they want. But how can it with so many of us worried about job safety and, therefore, scared to part with our cash?
Everywhere you look, the numbers are humbling. First-time claims for unemployment insurance, reported weekly, generally have been above 400,000 throughout 2010. Nearly 9 million people were getting jobless benefits as of mid-October, although the four-week average for claims fell to their lowest since December 2008. An emergency benefits program to cover the long-term unemployed — in extreme cases stretching more than 99 weeks — has been extended by Congress several times and may be again. For many, who tracked “unemployment extension 2010” in online searches, those benefits are all that’s keeping them from homelessness and hunger, and we can’t know with any certainty how long the government’s help will last.
Earlier this year, Washington found itself in a different position to help the jobless, thanks to the Census Bureau. Americans in need of work or a second income scrambled to join the agency when it needed to fill 1.2 million part-time roles for its once-a-decade demographic survey. For those who got the positions, it meant a few crucial months of steady work. But when the census ended, so did the jobs — and the temporary boost those jobs gave to the employment statistics.
Despite the gloom, it’s important to remember that there are bright spots, and October may be remembered as the month the labor market emerged from the doldrums. Private-sector hiring has been improving throughout the year, although the gains have ample room for growth.
With the midterm elections out of the way and the government continuing to try to right the ship, we’ll see if 2011 will mean the return of real, if slim, hope in the jobs arena.