I'm not an economist; I can barely balance my checkbook, and I would have failed statistics if it weren't for Sharon Sharillo. So imagine the difficulty I have interpreting data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Add whatever political spin you will to the mix and any interpretation of the data is a next to impossible task.
Take the data released March 8.
There was good news.
Both initial unemployment insurance claims and the unemployment rate dropped. That was welcome news.
But there was not so good news, as well.
According to the BLS, 12.8 million Americans were still unemployed. Of that number, 42.6 percent, or 5.4 million Americans, have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, otherwise known as the long-term unemployed.
Then there was more good news.
Employment in the private sector grew by 233,000. The sectors leading the way were professional and business services, health care and social assistance, leisure and hospitality, manufacturing and mining.
Then more not so good news.
The unemployment rates for the major worker groups remained flat. The unemployment rate for adult men was 7.7 percent, for adult women 7.7 percent, for teenagers 23.8 percent, for whites 7.3 percent, for blacks 14.1 percent, for Hispanics 10.7 percent and for Asians 6.3 percent.
Finally, there was some mixed news.
Since the recession officially ended in the summer of 2009, the economy has added approximately 1.66 million net jobs. Great news.
During the same period, however, the number of working-age Americans not in the labor force (those who have stopped looking for work) rose by 7.14 million. (My father argues that many stopped looking for work out of fear they might find it.)
The only group for whom labor participation rates have not fallen are workers age 65 and over.
The average length of unemployment is still close to its all-time high, and almost 3 million people are working part-time rather than full-time. Not so great news.
With all this data floating around, is the focus on the unemployment rate relevant as it relates to how the economy is doing?
I'm thinking that maybe the unemployment rate isn't as reliable a social and economic indicator as it used to be and that we're relying too much on the unemployment rate as an economic barometer.
It used to be that an increasing unemployment rate meant the economy was in trouble. A declining unemployment rate meant the economy was improving.
Some economists now argue that the mixed messages in the data may indicate that the "official unemployment rate," also known as the U-3 unemployment rate, isn't a reliable indicator of the strength of the labor market. The U-3 unemployment rate is the proportion of the civilian labor force that is unemployed but actively seeking employment. In other words, you have to have been actively looking for work during the month.
The data often seems contradictory. For example, between March and June 2011, the economy gained 290,000 jobs. During the same period, the unemployment rate increased.
How can that be?
To make sense of it, you have to understand how the data is collected.
The BLS employment report is comprised of the unemployment rate, which is calculated using household data, and the number of jobs added, which comes from the establishment data.
They are two separate reports, and never the twain shall meet.
Every month, BLS conducts a survey called the Current Population Survey. It measures the extent of unemployment in the country. BLS calculates the unemployment rate by asking people a simple question: "Are you employed or unemployed?" BLS then takes the unemployed number and divides it by the total number of people surveyed who are in the labor force, which counts both the employed and the unemployed, and the result is the unemployment percentage.
The "jobs added" number comes from asking employers: "How many people work for you?" and then subtracting the previous month's jobs number from this month's jobs number.
The result of this survey in no way affects the unemployment rate.
Confused? Well, welcome to my world, where you feel as if you fell down the rabbit hole when BLS releases its employment report. It's reminiscent of my college statistics class.
Where is Sharon Sharillo when you really need her?
Paul Grasso is the executive director of the North Country Workforce Investment Board, the counties' designated workforce-development planning agency, and the North Country Workforce Partnership Inc.