For the first time in five years, the U.S. economy lost jobs for three consecutive months, according to figures released today by the Department of Labor. Unemployment shot up to 5.1 percent from 4.8 in February, continuing the string of bad economic news that suggests the economy has entered a recession after years of poor jobs growth under President Bush. The mismanaged, weak economy is continuing to take a toll on working families.
In March, employment was down by 80,000 jobs, and since the start of the year the economy has lost 232,000 jobs. The last time the economy saw three straight months of employment decline was April 2003. Today’s release also indicates that job losses in January and February were worse than initially reported: Employment in those months was revised downward by 67,000 jobs.
The number of unemployed persons rose to 7,815,000 in March. The last time the number of unemployed was so high was in December 2004, and the number of unemployed has not increased as much over the course of a year since August 2002. While the unemployment rate increase of 0.3 percentage points is a significant jump from February, it should more accurately be viewed as a continuation of a year-long trend of rising unemployment.
These most recent job losses come on top of a period of very weak job growth, making today’s news that much more troubling. Over the past year, the economy has created only 536,000 jobs—far less than the pace needed just to keep up with population growth. In contrast, the economy created about 2 million jobs in 2006, which was a relatively weak year of economic recovery. In the late 1990s, the economy was creating 3 million jobs per year.
Job losses were widespread. The collapsing housing market continued its downward pull on the economy, but significant losses were felt in many other sectors, especially manufacturing and professional services. Job losses were led by the struggling construction sector, where 51,000 jobs were lost in March. Since March of last year, construction has lost 356,000 jobs.
Manufacturing continued its long slide, losing 48,000 jobs for the month. Manufacturing has lost jobs nearly every month for the past several years. For the past year, losses in the sector total 310,000 jobs.
Professional services, a sector that had been growing in recent months, declined by 35,000 jobs in March. Over the past year, the sector has still produced 161,000 jobs. Temporary help services fell by over 21,000 for the month, indicating that hiring is likely to be weak for some time. Increases in temporary employment can indicate a growing need for workers.
As has been the case for some time, jobs increased in health care, restaurants, and government, but gains in these sectors were not enough to prevent the overall employment figures from appearing grim. Healthcare added nearly 23,000 jobs in March, and has generated just over 360,000 new jobs over the past year. Restaurant employment increased by 23,000 for the month, and has added nearly 290,000 jobs for the year. Government added 18,000 jobs, and has added 244,000 since March 2007.
The Department of Labor report also indicates that the economic downturn is hitting the Latino community particularly hard. The employment-to-population ratio—a good measure of the overall strength of the labor market—fell the sharpest for Hispanics in March, declining to 63.7 percent from 64.3 percent. In contrast the employment-to-population ration for whites held steady at 63.3 percent. The ratio for African Americans also fell, but by a lesser amount, to 58.2 percent from 58.4 percent.
The job market has been particularly hard on those with less skills—workers with a high school degree or less—a category that includes many immigrants. The employment-to-population ratio fell for the month to 42.3 percent from 43.0 percent for people with less than a high school diploma, and to 59.1 percent from 59.7 for those with a high school degree.
In contrast, the employment-to-population ratio for those with more education held steady or increased: For those with some college it remained about the same, going to 69.3 percent to 69.4 percent, and for those with a bachelor’s degree or more it increased to 77.0 percent from 76.5.
All told, today’s jobs figures paint a bleak picture of a weak economy. There is no way to put a positive face on today’s job figures. The labor market has been in the doldrums for years, with well below average job growth, flat wages, and declining benefits. This has forced families deeper and deeper into record amounts of debt. And just as families are beginning to ponder how they are ever going to repay this debt, the rug is pulled out from under them as jobs become scarcer. The weak labor market is inflicting the greatest harm on those who are the most vulnerable.
Policymakers who have ignored the trouble signs brewing in the labor market for years need to craft an economic recovery plan that addresses the current nosedive in the labor market, but also the long-term weakness that preceded it. The recently enacted economic stimulus plan will help kick-start the economy when checks go out to taxpayers this summer, but it needs to be followed by a reorientation of our longer-term economic policies to make the economy work for real people with real economic problems—not just financial markets dealing with mostly self-inflicted pain.
David Madland is the Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress.