Prodded by union leaders, state governments started designating a Labor Day holiday on the first Monday in September more than 120 years ago. The day has always been tinged with melancholy — it marks the unofficial end of summer. This year, however, the holiday is particularly bittersweet.
The Labor Department reported Friday that private employment increased by only 67,000 jobs in August, or 40,000 fewer than in July. That leaves 14.9 million people unemployed, in addition to the 8.9 million who are employed part time because they can't find full-time jobs. It was the eighth consecutive month of increased private hiring but the second with no improvement in the unemployment rate, which inched up to 9.6%.
Granted, the situation was worse in the last three months of 2009, when 10% of the country was unemployed. But painfully slow economic growth and even slower hiring has scarcely improved matters since then. And now the country's workforce finds itself in an unusually uncomfortable position: For the first time since the Depression, unemployment is likely to be above 9.5% for two consecutive Labor Days.
The sputtering recovery has sharpened Washington's focus on jobs and unemployment, but Democrats and Republicans remain sharply divided over what to do. Having counted on last year's $787-billion stimulus package to revive the economy, Democrats were slow to respond when joblessness continued to increase through much of 2009. And now their ranks are split between liberals eager for more stimulus and moderates anxious about the deficit. Republicans, meanwhile, blame the economy's problems on the stimulus package, healthcare reform and just about every other Democratic initiative. They argue that the best tonic would be to extend the Bush tax cuts permanently, a proposal that has no chance on Capitol Hill but may play well on the campaign trail.
To craft the right response to the unemployment problem, it helps to understand who the unemployed are and why they don't have jobs. Here are some insights provided by the data that the Bureau of Labor Statistics assembles:
The downturn has been an equal-opportunity unemployer. Joblessness has increased dramatically for almost every demographic group and almost every industry. Unemployment in April, May and June was more or less twice as high as it was before the recession for whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. Joblessness rates increased significantly for the old, the middle-aged and the young, women and men, the college-educated and high school dropouts.
Jobs vanished in construction, manufacturing, sales, transportation, finance and information services. And even in the few industries that gained jobs, such as education, health and hospitality, hiring didn't increase fast enough to keep pace with the growing supply of workers.
Although the misery is widespread, some groups have been hit harder than others. A new analysis by the National Employment Law Project found that men make up a greater share of the unemployed than they did before the recession — 58% — as do workers 25 and older — 74%. The unemployment rate for workers 55 and older has climbed from 3% to 7%.
Workers with no education past high school still make up more than half of the unemployed. But the percentage with more education grew slightly, from 46% to 48%. Similar, subtle shifts have occurred in the work experience of the unemployed, with construction and manufacturing workers making up a slightly larger percentage of the total, and hospitality workers, salespeople, teachers and healthcare workers making up less.
The worst off before the recession are the worst off now. More than 45% of black teenage workers were without jobs in August, the highest unemployment rate by far of any demographic group. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for all black workers was about 16%, compared with 12% for Latinos and 8.7% for whites.
Workers without a high school diploma are three times as likely to be unemployed as those with college degrees. And single women who support families are twice as likely to be unemployed as married men or women.
It takes longer for the average unemployed person to find a job than it did when unemployment peaked in October 2009. As of August, 42% of the jobless have been idle for more than six months. And the average length of time spent unemployed was about eight months — twice as long as when the recession began. Both of those figures are slightly better than they were in May and June, when they hit the highest levels ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.