The frustrating thing about the Labor Department's monthly unemployment numbers -- at least from my perspective as someone who covers labor issues -- is that the feds actually release six numbers each month, but just one gets any real attention -- and that number happens to be one of the least useful of the batch in terms of giving us an accurate picture of the economy.
The department's six figures are called "U-1" through "U-6" and start from a narrow definition of the unemployed population and move gradually towards a broader one. U-1, for example, is everybody who has worked for more than 15 weeks. The "official" rate according to the department, though, is U-3. That's the 6.6 percent figure you heard on the news this morning or saw in the headlines.
U-3 is defined by the department as "total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force." That certainly sounds pretty complete --until you realize it only includes people who are actively looking for work. The U-4 figure adds the "discouraged" -- that is, the unemployed who aren't currently looking for work because they assume there isn't anything out there for them. U-5 adds the underemployed, and U-6 includes them as well as those who only have part-time jobs "for economic reasons." Does anybody think these people wouldn't be out applying for jobs if more were out there?
Labor economists I've spoken with all say that the designation of U-3 as the official number is basically arbitrary. In the current economy, with so many dropping out of the workforce altogether, you would think that U-5 or U-6 would be the better, more accurate figure.
If either were the official number, they would put the current unemployment rate at, respectively, 8.1 percent or 12.7 percent. Either would seem to more accurately reflect the economy we live in.
Lawmakers on both sides have periodically proposed ditching U-3 as the official number. Maybe it is time they formed a coalition. If we are going to fight unemployment, the first thing we need is accurate numbers.