Not To Belabor Things: What Unemployment Rates Don't Tell You

Not To Belabor Things: What Unemployment Rates Don't Tell You

As the US celebrated Labor Day on Monday, President Trump took to Twitter to remind the world how good things are for American workers today. And with unemployment around 3.9 percent, you can’t blame him. Nearly a decade after the global financial crisis, the US and much of Europe are just starting to see employment return to pre-crisis levels.


But as Gabe is here to explain, national-level unemployment numbers conceal at least as much as they reveal, in three ways that you should bear in mind:

First, they count the jobless but omit the hopeless. Unemployment rates count joblessness only among people who are actively looking for work. Those who’ve given up or are unable to seek employment are left out entirely. So while unemployment in the US has fallen from a high of 9.6 percent in 2014 to around 3.9 percent today, it’s also true that the American labor force (which includes people working or looking for jobs) has shrunk by about 3.2 since 2008—in part due to a rise in those who’ve given up on the job search or are too sick to look for work.

Second, they don’t tell you about local conditions. Politically speaking, the geographic or ethnic distribution of unemployment and worker dislocation matters at least as much as the national average. Consider that the UK county of Lincolnshire, where a larger percentage of workers have left the labor forcein recent years than in any other region in the Britain, had the highest pro-Brexit vote share in the entire country. Meanwhile in Pas-De-Calais, France, the unemployment rate is more than three points higher than the national average and the highest in continental France – this was one of only two departments where a majority voted for the far-right National Front in the 2017 presidential election. And of course in the 2016 US Presidential election, rural areas that have seen much slower employment growth than urban ones voted almost uniformly for President Trump, even as national employment numbers were improving.

Third, they tell you nothing about the quality of jobs. The US, for example, has experienced significant jobs gains over the past few years, but many of those jobs have been in low paying industries. Just because you have a job doesn’t mean it offers enough security to pay the bills or take care of your family. In the US, the share of national income (i.e., wages and benefits) going to workers in industries like manufacturing and construction, which are typically high paying, has been steadily declining for more than two decades.

In sum, a low national unemployment number is always better than a higher one – but in order to understand what’s really going on, you can’t rely on it alone.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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