The jobs situation nationally is slowly improving, but is the pace fast enough to reward President Barack Obama with reelection?
The administration says January saw a net gain of 243,000 jobs, and 351,000 newly laid-off workers sought unemployment benefits last week, the fewest since March 2008. These encouraging signs come as the number of people receiving unemployment benefits fell to 7.5 million in the week ending Feb. 4, the latest numbers available, down from 7.7 million the week before.
But there's a flip side. Unemployment still is 8.3 percent, meaning 12.8 million Americans who want to work don't have jobs. Nearly half are "long-term" unemployed, meaning they have been out of work at least 27 weeks.
The president promised three years ago that unemployment would not rise above 8 percent if his trillion-dollar stimulus were approved, but it has hovered above 8 percent every month since the stimulus became law in February 2009. The president predicted unemployment would be only 6 percent today.
Even if employers add 265,000 net jobs per month — more than were added in January — unemployment won't return to its "natural" 5.2 percent rate until December 2014, the Heritage Foundation calculates. At the rate seen the past five months, it will be 2018 before 5.2 percent is reached.
The jobs picture figures to be near, if not at, the top of voters' concerns. Republican candidates press the issue, as does the president. Some cynics question the convenience of improving jobless numbers as the election nears. This administration probably wouldn't be the first to tweak data to put it in the best light during a campaign.
But even if the job situation is improving at its apparent rate, how many people are swayed by numbers that don't match their personal experience? Mr. Obama's happy face on an employment rate 4 percent lower than when the recession began 49 months ago runs into inconvenient reality. Those participating in the labor force have declined to 63.7 percent of working-age Americans, compared with more than 67 percent in 2001, and 66 percent at the beginning of the recession.
That means 36.3 percent of working-age Americans don't have jobs, and are not looking. These include many people "sitting on the sidelines, not looking for work because they believe no jobs are available," writes Mike Brownfield at the Heritage Foundation.