The Good News in May’s Dismal Jobs Report

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By Mark Whitehouse

Optimists can find some small comfort in one part of today's broadly dismal jobs report: The estimated share of the U.S. population with a job actually rose.

The Labor Department's household survey, based on a sample of 60,000 households, found that the number of people employed rose by 422,000 in May, bringing the employment-to-population ratio to 58.6 percent. That's up from 58.4 percent in April and matches the ratio in February, which was the highest since May 2010.

To be sure, the ratio is still very far from normal: The average over the ten years preceding the last recession was 63.3 percent.

The rise in the unemployment rate, to 8.2 percent in May from 8.1 percent in April, occurred because more people entered, or re-entered, the labor force. Only people who are actively seeking work -- meaning they're in the labor force -- are counted as unemployed. The labor force grew by an estimated 642,000 in May, 220,000 more than the increase in the number of people employed. Hence, more unemployed.

One interesting point for wonks: The 422,000 employment gain estimated in the household survey exceeded the survey's margin of error, which is about 400,000 jobs. This means we can be pretty sure that there actually was a gain. By contrast, statistically speaking, we can't be so sure that May's gain in nonfarm payroll employment -- an estimated 69,000 -- wasn't really less than zero or greater than the 150,000 economists had forecast. The margin of error in the payroll survey is about 100,000 jobs.

(Mark Whitehouse is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

-0- Jun/04/2012 15:20 GMT