The January jobs report offers very little to celebrate.
Headline unemployment dropped from 6.7 percent to 6.3 percent, but that was mainly because the labor force shrank; the U.S. economy added only 49,000 net nonfarm payroll jobs. Meanwhile, job losses in December were revised upward from 140,000 to 227,000, and job gains in November were revised downward from 336,000 to 264,000.
“The recovery is only stumbling along at this point,” Wells Fargo Securities senior economist Sarah House told the Wall Street Journal. “Yes, we managed to eke out a gain, but we’re still 9.9 million jobs shy of where we were back in February.”
As Sydney Ember and Ben Casselman of the New York Times observe, “While the December losses were concentrated in a few pandemic-exposed sectors, the weakness in January was broad-based. Manufacturers, retailers and transportation companies all cut jobs, indicating that the economic damage is spreading.”
A few more data-points to put things in perspective:
The total number of people unemployed for 27 weeks or longer is at its highest level since 2013.
At 39.5 percent, the long-term share of the unemployed has reached its highest level since 2012. In other words, nearly four out of every 10 unemployed workers has been without a job for 27 weeks or longer.
And while the labor-force-participation rate among prime-age men ticked up in January, it remains lower than at any point in recorded history prior to the pandemic.
To be sure, we have every reason to believe that job growth will accelerate as more Americans get vaccinated and the pandemic subsides. But the impact of the COVID downturn will reverberate for years to come, especially for the long-term unemployed.
“Finding work is already more difficult for such individuals,” notes CNBC reporter Greg Iacurci, “and tepid job improvement makes that task all the more challenging. Businesses may look unfavorably on long gaps in employment, for example. Jobs may not be available to workers in hotels, restaurants or other hard-hit industries. Employers in other industries may not readily hire a candidate with less experience than others.”
President Biden cited the jobs report as evidence that Congress urgently needs to pass his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. But if the economy is so weak that it requires such massive fiscal assistance, this is clearly the wrong moment to enact a large tax increase or impose a national $15 minimum wage, to list two other policy goals Biden has endorsed.
Let us be thankful that the Senate has tabled Biden’s $15 minimum wage for the time being. We’ll have to wait and see if Democrats push ahead with his proposed tax hikes.