January 8, 2010 6:27PM

No, the ‘Real’ Unemployment Rate Isn’t 17.3%

Nearly every economic commentator from Fox News (on the fair and balanced side) to Paul Krugman (on the unfair and unbalanced side) is eager to tell you that the “real” unemployment rate is not 10% but 17.3%. The latter figure is the largest of six offered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that does not make it more meaningful.

Many people believe (incorrectly) that unemployment is a measure of how many jobs were lost. But people can also be unemployed because they quit their job, or because they never worked before, or haven’t worked in a long time. Job losers accounted for 63.7% of the unemployed in December, down from 66.1% in September. If we counted only those who were unemployed because they lost their jobs, that measure of unemployment was 6.3% in December — down from 6.7% in October.

The 17.3% figure, by contrast, starts with those looking for jobs during the past month and adds “all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons.” That phrase “marginally attached” means people who looked for work at some point during the past year, but not lately. Contrary to press reports, relatively few of the “marginally attached” are those discouraged about job prospects. Adding discouraged workers would only push the unemployment rate up by half a percentage point, to 10.5%. And even that small number of discouraged workers is not simply those who could not find work, but those who simply “think” no work is available, or think they are too young, too old, or that they lack the necessary schooling or training.

The rest of the “marginally attached” don’t even think they can’t find work. Instead, they are not looking for work “for such reasons as school or family responsibilities, ill health, and transportation problems.” To describe such people who are not available for work as “underemployed” (much less unemployed) is an abuse of the language.

As for those “working part‐​time for economic reasons,” only a fourth say they could only find part‐​time work. Those who normally work a 9‐​to‐​5 schedule (35 hours a week) are counted as working part‐​time for economic reasons if they miss even one hour “for reasons such as holidays, illness and bad weather.” That isn’t really underemployment, much less “real” unemployment.

What is unique about last year’s unemployment was its typical duration — doubling the number of weeks people remain on the dole. Because those who have been unemployed 12–18 months do not leave the ranks of the unemployed until their benefits are about to run out (after an unprecedented 79 weeks or more), it doesn’t take many newly unemployed to push the rate above 10%. Congress tripled the number of weeks people collect unemployment benefits (describing that and other transfer payments as a “stimulus”) and now wonders why so many people take so long to accept a suitable job offer. If you subsidize something, you get more of it — and that applies to unemployment too. Many of those same clueless legislators may be equally surprised to find themselves out of a job next November.