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What Do April's Job Numbers Mean?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the case of that Chinese human rights lawyer who sought protection from the U.S. is causing a stir in diplomatic circles, but we wondered what Chinese-Americans and expatriates have to say about it, so we have called upon the host of a Chinese language talk show based in the U.S. to tell us more about what her listeners are saying. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at those new unemployment figures that came out on Friday. On Friday the Labor Department released the jobs numbers for April and they were, not to put too fine a point on it, disappointing. Only 115,000 jobs were created, a lot less than most economists had been expecting. The unemployment rate did edge down to 8.1 percent, but that seems to be because the number of people looking for work is shrinking.

We wanted to talk about what this means for the economy overall but also how communities of color are faring in the latest jobs report because those groups have been among the hardest hit by unemployment. In a moment we will hear from the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. He and the caucus have made job creation a priority and we want to hear what he has to say about the latest report.

But first, we turn to NPR business editor Marilyn Geewax. Marilyn, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us again.


MARTIN: What do these numbers tell us about the state of the economy overall right now?

GEEWAX: Well, here's what we learned from that latest Labor Department report. This spring it's just disappointing, lackluster. Now, there is some good news out there. The country has had 26 straight months of job growth, so that's good. And private employers last month added about 130,000 jobs. Some specific industries are doing pretty well.

Manufacturing is still growing. Tech firms, farms are doing OK. The energy sector is pretty good. But we've seen a lot of state and local governments cutting back because of these budget cuts. So in April, governments eliminated about 15,000 jobs. That's kind of just a wet blanket on the economy. That's 15,000 people who are not going to go to restaurants, probably won't be taking vacations.

So here's the big picture. Jobs are growing, but the momentum is too slow. So as a result we have about 12.5 million people who are seeking work and the average length of unemployment is more than nine months.

MARTIN: What do we know about who is most affected by this? You remember at the beginning of the recession many people were calling it a man-cession because it seemed that men, or jobs that seem to be dominated by men, like construction, were the most heavily affected. Has that changed?

Who is most affected now by unemployment?

GEEWAX: Well, that's what - at first it was manufacturers and home construction so it was really that joke about the man-cession was going on. But at this point it's sort of disproportionately hitting at women and African-Americans especially, because of the loss of these state and local government jobs. So we've seen teachers, social workers, police officers, and of course postal workers are getting cut.

And that's really the backbone of the black middle class in this country. So the overall unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, for African-Americans 13 percent. And the other group that's hurting too, though, Michel, is all young people. People in their early 20s are really getting hurt. They're just not getting in the door.

So their unemployment rate is about 13 percent also. And all of this comes together and it means a lot of people are just dropping out. Last month we saw about 342,000 people just left the labor market.

MARTIN: And that was going to be my last question before I turned to Congressman Cleaver, is that we hear about discouraged workers. We hear that part of the reason that the number, the overall unemployment rate has gone down, is that a number of workers are not actively looking, that they've gotten discouraged. What do we know about that and who are these people? Are these primarily the younger folks or this across the board of all the groups that you've been talking about?

GEEWAX: Well, let me just say that some of the dropping out is not that bad in the sense that some baby boomers are getting older, they get to 62 or so and they just start retiring. They're taking their Social Security benefits. And there are some people who - we've seen a big spike in disability. A lot of people are just moving on to Social Security disability benefits. A lot of women are starting to stay home to take care of elderly parents and children.

And some of it is young people choose to go back to school to get a little more education. But way, way too much of it is for all the wrong reasons. These are the people who are becoming discouraged, so they apply for food stamps. We've seen a real spike in that because they just don't see any jobs out there. So they're sort of hunkering down, clustering together with families.

We've seen a lot of increase in multigenerational households where everybody's just getting together to try to survive, and none of that is good for the economy.

MARTIN: We're talking about the latest jobs numbers that came out on Friday. I'm speaking with NPR's business editor, Marilyn Geewax. Now I'd like to turn to Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. He represents Missouri's fifth district. He's also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has made unemployment a priority. Welcome back to the program also, Congressman.


MARTIN: Thank you so much. What of these figures - what of this report most concerns you?

CLEAVER: Well, first of all, we have to look at the overall progress that we're making. I think the president can be very proud of the fact that for 26 consecutive months we have seen job creation. Actually, over the last five months we've seen one million new jobs created and about four million over the last 26 months. But here's the problem. African-American unemployment is still showing a great deal of volatility.

And although African-American women are seeing their numbers drop in terms of unemployment, the men are almost remaining stagnant. And, you know, I'm constantly asked, well, why. And, you know, one of the problems is that there's no background music to solving the black unemployment problem. And one of the things that troubles me is that corporations, the large corporations, are making record profits but they are not hiring. And so they're just piling up reserve dollars without hiring.

MARTIN: What do you - I know you just got back from a week of travel across the country where - to cities across the country, not just in your district, where presumably this issue came up. What are people telling you about, you know, their spirits, their attitude, you know, about this? What do you sense out there?

CLEAVER: I spoke with a guy in Cleveland, African-American with a Master's degree who was telling me he was going to go and try to do an unpaid internship, that he had been out working and - but that he was giving up until maybe something happened out in the world that would show that he has a chance to get a job. It's the labor participation rate - that's what we call it, the labor participation rate, which means people going into the market looking for jobs - is down.

And that's because of frustration. People are just saying I've been out here, you know, for two years looking for a job, I can't get one unless I work at a fast food joint. And many people are saying, you know, look, you know, I can't even survive on that.

MARTIN: What are you hearing when you talk to your colleagues across the aisle? Because one of the things that seems to have occurred in this country is, and you know, we've just seen elections in France and in Greece where very, you know, different - very sharply different sort of philosophical perspectives on the best way to address lagging economies were the issue.

When you talk to your colleagues across the aisle, you know, about what you see, do you see any sign of a meeting of the minds about the appropriate way to address, you know, these issues in this country?

CLEAVER: No. My colleagues, good and decent people, but there's a disconnect and the disconnect is that they believe that if we can simply reduce the tax rate, the corporate tax rates, and give more and more tax cuts to corporations, that they will hire. And of course we - if that - if there was truth in that, then we never would've gone into the recession in the first place because when George Bush came into power he immediately did a tax cut and then two years later after we'd entered into the war there was another tax cut.

And if the logic is give tax cuts and things will explode economically in a good way, then we never would have gone into recession. So we're having difficulty. One of the reasons that corporations are not hiring - there are a lot of reasons, but one of them is that - because they are operating much more efficiently, and also technology has eliminated the need for some jobs, and the only way we're going to reduce the black unemployment rate is to do training - job training - so that we will have a workforce that can match the technological advances in the corporate world. And until that happens, we're not going to be able to solve the problem, and the other side - I'm a Democrat - the other side just believes in tax cuts.

MARTIN: Well, some argue it's also uncertainty, that uncertainty is - political uncertainty leads to economic uncertainty and that people aren't sure on how much investment that they should make because they're not sure kind of what the business environment is going to be, you know, a year from now, two years from now, three years from now. And, of course, it's an election year where there's the added uncertainty. Do you credit that argument, that that's also part of a lag on growth?

CLEAVER: I do believe that there are some corporations who believe that, you know, they need to see greater stability in the government, but they are, in many ways, helping to generate the instability and by - with a series of things - number one, many of them are participating in the superPACs, which is going to create a higher level of polarization in Congress, and we're going to have ideological differences rising, even in the next Congress, I believe.

And I do think that it would be good if everybody knew in the next year this is going to happen, but you know, there is no stability and the public needs to understand that there's no stability and it's because of the people who are elected.

MARTIN: Well, Congressman, can I just - we only have a minute left. I want to give Marilyn one more thought, but can I just ask you, as a political leader yourself, are there any steps that you can personally take yourself or within the caucus to try to contribute to an atmosphere of, you know, bipartisanship that might address this?

CLEAVER: Well, yes. First of all, I was a part of the group that organized 100 members of Congress, 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans, who called a press conference and announced that we were supporting a combined bipartisan way to deal with the deficit. We had all the news media there. Nobody would report it because we weren't fighting and so that was troublesome. We said we were going to support Simpson-Bowles. No coverage at all.

MARTIN: A debt relief - an effort to cut the deficit. Well, I take your criticism, Congressman. I understand what you're saying and I thank you for joining us.

Marilyn, a final thought from you, very briefly?

GEEWAX: Just that we have more trouble to come with Congress in that a lot of tax cuts are expiring. They are big issues towards the end of the year. So the things that are a problem now are likely to get worse in terms of being a damper on the economy because of this uncertainty.

MARTIN: That's NPR business editor Marilyn Geewax, here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Also with us, Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. He represents Missouri's Fifth District. He's also the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and just returned from a cross country listening tour.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

CLEAVER: Good to be with you.

GEEWAX: It's nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.