Unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story

Photo credit: http://grammarware.net

Photo credit: grammarware.net

On Monday the New York Times had an article called Economic Recovery Yields Few Benefits for the Voters Democrats Rely On. It’s not surprising that it frames things in terms of electoral impact, given the primary elections the next day. What struck me about the piece was the passages about unemployment measures. Two frequent, and long-standing criticisms, are that the official measures don’t include people who have given up looking for work or are working part time but want full time work.

It looks at the case of women:

Consider women, whose unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent, up almost two percentage points from when Mr. Obama took office, as they weighed whether to vote in the midterms of 2010. Today, it is 5.7 percent, a seemingly shining number for Democrats desperate to widen the gender gap.

But while the number of women out of work appears to be much improved, the number of women employed compared with the total female population is 55.2 percent, actually worse than it was in October 2010. Progress, in fact, is a mirage, the product of what economists call the disappearing work force: people giving up and dropping out.

Later it discusses African-Americans:

Blacks, whose support for Mr. Obama has been unwavering, have seen their unemployment rate drop from 15.7 percent at the last midterms to 11.6 percent, still high but a considerable improvement. But the rate at which they are employed has barely moved, to 53.8 percent of the black population from 52.4. Black women have seen no improvement in their employment rate.

I keep coming back to how the measures we use determine what we know, or think we know, about the world we live in. It ended up being a major theme of my dissertation and is something I keep seeing many different places.