14:10 PM

The Unemployment Numbers Game

Recent trends have suggested that unemployment rates in the United States continue to drop to the 5% level, far below peak levels seen in the wake of the 2008-2009 recession. Partisan political supporters are likely to credit the Obama administration for this development, and are quick to criticize those who discount his role in driving these numbers. These figures are routinely quoted by the mainstream media with little investigation or explanation for why the numbers are trending favorably. Even as many other economic indicators suggest an economy stuck in neutral, or perhaps still mired in a long-term depression, low unemployment rates are heralded as indicative of a recovering economy. Yet if unemployment rates are so low, why does the economy seem so sluggish?

In this article, we will use historical data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to track patterns and tell the real story about employment and unemployment patterns in 2015. All datasets focus on adults 16 & over, and are not seasonally adjusted, although some of our charts will use moving averages to smooth the data. To tell this story, we'll focus on several data sets created by the BLS:

  • Labor force participation, expressed as a 0-100 number (a percentage)
  • Employment ratio, also expressed as a 0-100 number (a percentage)
  • Full-time workers, a raw number expressed in thousands (000's)
  • Unemployed workers, expressed in thousands (000's)
  • Labor force, expressed in thousands (000's)
  • Adults not in labor force, expressed in thousands (000's)

We'll navigate through each of these datasets, providing charts for each measure, and offering critical analysis of each trend. Note that all of these charts are interactive; use the small, lower chart to select a range of data to be displayed in the main chart. When the number of data points are sufficiently limited, you will be able to hover over any point to see the time period and corresponding data value.

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