Economy’s paradox? Few layoffs, but still high joblessness

Zachary Roth
Senior National Affairs Reporter
The Lookout

It's no secret that despite some recent positive news, America's jobs market is still a long way from healthy. The jobless rate inched back up to 9 percent last month; nearly 14 million Americans are unemployed, and millions more have given up looking for work. And there are still more than four unemployed workers for every job opening.

This grim litany of numbers stands in sharp, and seemingly counterintuitive, contrast to another trend in the labor economy: The number of Americans laid off or discharged from their jobs recently reached its lowest monthly mark since at least 2000--even without adjusting for a growing population.

That's right: As shown by the chart below, compiled by Haver Analytics using Labor Department statistics, the figure spiked to more than 2.5 million a month at the nadir of the Great Recession in early 2009, but since then has dropped to about 1.6 million.

Does this mean that the overall employment picture is actually better than it looks? Not really. It's unquestionably a good thing that layoffs are down, but the economy still isn't creating enough new jobs to make a dent in the unemployment rate. And an economy that has seen layoffs taper off but is still not creating enough new jobs leads to another notable feature of the current downturn: long-term joblessness.

As we've reported, long-term unemployment is at chronic levels. Labor Department numbers for March showed that out of the roughly 13.5 million Americans counted as unemployed, around 6 million of them had been jobless for 27 weeks or more. And that figure doesn't include the large number who gave up looking for work after becoming discouraged.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the problem of long-term joblessness "really concerns me." The longer people are out of the work force, the harder it is for them to rejoin it--in part because their skills (and spirits) tend to atrophy.

Of course, more layoffs wouldn't help the long-term jobless--indeed it would spike overall unemployment levels and thereby increase competition for the narrow range of job openings. But for a given rate of unemployment, it might be preferable to have more hiring, more layoffs, and less long-term unemployment, rather than the reverse set of conditions. At least in that case, more of the pain would be shared equally.

(Job applicants wait in a long line at a job fair in San Jose, Calif., March 2011. AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)