WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton's campaign famously defined the 1992 election with the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." Today, "It's the jobs, stupid."
The latest employment figures, released in late January, showed a 52-month streak of job creation ending with a loss of 17,000 jobs in January. The Bush administration acknowledged the contraction, but pointed to the national unemployment rate of 4.9 percent to say that the labor market wasn't a harbinger of recession.
A closer look at unemployment data by McClatchy, however, found that jobless Americans are spending more time looking for work and that those who can't find work now make up a greater share of the unemployed.
Several measures of unemployment, in fact, show that the workforce is under the kind of stress not seen since March 2001, when the U.S. economy entered a nine-month recession, followed by a so-called jobless recovery.
Like much in economics, labor statistics are vexing because they can be seen as a glass half empty or half full.
The Bush administration points out that the percentage of workers unable to find work for 27 weeks or longer was only 0.9 percent of the overall workforce in January.
"So in terms of proportion of individuals who are facing long-term unemployment, it's about the same as it was in the mid-1990s and actually lower than throughout most of the past few years," said Edward Lazear, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
But when Americans unemployed for 27 weeks or longer are measured as a share of the total number of unemployed, the story is very different.
The long-term unemployed amounted to 18.3 percent of all the unemployed in January. That means that while overall unemployment is low, almost one in five unemployed workers has been jobless for six months or more.
"Long-term unemployment is really very interesting and in some ways a more telling indicator," said Jared Bernstein, a labor economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "It basically says that given the particularly low level of unemployment, you'd expect a much lower share (of long-term unemployed) on the jobless rolls. Job creation has been anything but robust."
The institute published its estimates for chronic unemployment in 2007 by state, working from Labor Department data. It found that the long-term unemployed in nine states — including Wisconsin, which holds its presidential primary Tuesday — represented a full percent or more of the total state workforce. (The other states were Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio and South Carolina.)
When the U.S. economy last went into recession, in March 2001, the unemployment rate was 5.7 percent and the long-term unemployed made up 11.1 percent of all unemployed. That number reached the 18 percent range 14 months later and peaked at 23.4 percent during a single month in both 2004 and 2005.
These statistics suggest that if the United States is in a recession — still a subject of debate among economists — the nation is entering an economic contraction with a much higher rate of chronically unemployed than it did during the nine-month recession in 2001.
"It's a critically important linchpin because, although we get excited about every bip and bop in the stock market, it's the labor market that matters most to most people. They're depending on their paycheck, not their stock portfolios," Bernstein said. "If the labor market is not producing enough jobs or hours of work, that's going to show up as diminished income growth and less consumption."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is avoiding taking sides.
"We try very much to tell people to not just look at a couple of numbers because the story gets so much more complex," said Thomas Nardone, a veteran statistician and BLS assistant commissioner.
The Economic Report of the President, which the Bush administration released on Feb. 11, contains another warning flag, however. The report confirmed that the median, or midpoint, duration of the time it takes a worker to find a new job rose to 8.4 weeks in 2007 from 7.5 weeks in 2006.
But the Bush administration is quick to note that Americans still can get work.
More than "80 percent of the people looking for a job will find a job in 26 weeks. That is what all the statistics show," said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in a recent interview.
That half-full view is shared by James Sherk, a labor economist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy research group.
"It's kind of hard to point at that to say that this is a tremendously serious problem here," he said, suggesting that the long-term unemployment picture is skewed by unemployment in troubled states that have lost manufacturing jobs.
If there's disagreement over what measure of chronic unemployment tells the real story, other gauges developed by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics show a strain on the quality of employment.
The gauges came into use in 1994 to measure things such as part-time workers who are unable to get full-time jobs, and Americans who aren't employed or aren't looking but said they'd take jobs if they became available.
Those groups of workers together accounted for 9 percent of the labor force in January. In March 2001, at the start of the last recession, they were 7.6 percent of the workforce.
In addition, in January, 4.7 million people were working part time in the United States, up sharply from about 3.3 million in March 2001. During the last slowdown, the number passed 4 million in the final months of that recession and fell below that only once since, in April 2006.
"If you did a survey of people just walking up the street (they'd say they could find work) ... it may not be what they want, but they probably could get a job," said Sharon Morgan, an area director of a state workforce center in Liberty, S.C., a region hit hard by the closure of textile mills.
The number of multiple jobholders nationwide exceeded 7.6 million in 2007, the highest number since 1999. As a percentage of the employed, they made up 5.2 percent of workforce, down from 5.8 percent in 1999.
ON THE WEB
The Labor Department's most recent unemployment report.
Economic Policy Institute's ranking of chronic unemployment by state.