Trump's Guide to Weakness in the U.S. Labor Market

Report lays out figures beyond main jobless rate


Trump speaks at the Detroit Economic Club, on Aug. 8, 2016.

Photographer: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg

Democrats typically cite the current unemployment rate of 4.9 percent as evidence of significant economic improvement since the last recession, but a report this week from the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research says otherwise.

Author and research associate Nick Buffie looked beyond the main jobless rate to more than a half-dozen measures including prime-age employment, labor compensation and the rate at which workers are quitting their jobs. When you factor these in, "the economy is weaker than the unemployment rate says and we haven’t fully recovered from the recession yet," Buffie says.

While the report argues that the Federal Reserve should keep interest rates low to preserve jobs, it could also double as a handy guide for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in delivering his message that the economy can do better. The billionaire businessman has blamed President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for "the weakest so-called recovery since the Great Depression."

Here is a look at some of the numbers that Trump could hold up:

Fewer Prime-Age Americans Working

Because the American population is aging, a greater percentage may retire and voluntarily stop working. This doesn't necessarily imply a weaker job market, but if you look at a group of people who have every reason to take advantage of robust employment, it paints a different picture of the labor force.

In 2007, the year the recession began, the prime-age employment rate — defined as the percentage of Americans age 25 to 54 with a job — was 79.9 percent. The share fell to 74.8 percent in December 2009 and remained low until it began rising two years later, reaching 77.8 percent in June 2016.

Based on these numbers, the labor market has only recovered about three-fifths of the employment lost during the recession, according to Buffie.

More People Want to Work

Since the unemployment rate peaked in 2009 at 10 percent, about 12.7 million workers have found work, while an additional 11.8 million Americans have given up on their job search altogether. The report suggests that many currently unemployed Americans would resume work if given the opportunity.

Buffie cites those marginally attached to the labor force, or people who want jobs but are not counted as unemployed because they haven't actively searched for work in the past month, and discouraged workers to make the case. Although the number of unemployed workers is up 12 percent since the end of 2007, the number of Americans who would like to work has risen at double the pace.

The number of  so-called ``job wanters'' — which are prospective workers who wants jobs but haven't searched for one within the past four weeks — is up 25 percent since 2007. Of those, the number of "marginally attached workers" — defined as a prospective worker who wants a job, is available to work now, and searched for employment within the past year but not the past four weeks — is up 31 percent. There were also 64 percent more ``discouraged workers,'' or marginally attached workers who had given up looking for work specifically because they didn’t think any jobs were available.

So could Trump use these numbers to argue the labor market is in bad shape? ``You could say we haven't recovered yet,'' Buffie says. ``Now, that is a fair critique to make, but you have to couch it in realistic terms,'' he says, referring to Trump's previous remarks that the jobless rate could be as high as 42 percent. 

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