The August Jobs Report: Bad Times Ahead?

Frank StrickerBy FRANK STRICKER

From its household survey, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 to 5.2% in August. Labor markets seemed to be moving in the right direction. But there is a long way to go to full employment as defined by many mainstream economists – 4% unemployment or less. And it is much, much farther to get to real full employment.

While official figures show that we have 8.4 million unemployed people, the National Jobs for All Network’s Full Count, shown below, finds that we have 18.6 million people who need jobs or upgrading from part-time to full-time jobs.

Even if job growth stays positive, we need special programs and policies to ensure that social groups are not left behind. The Asian-American unemployment rate is about the same as the white rate (4.6% vs. 4.5%), but the Latinx rate is 6.4%, and the Black rate actually rose a bit to 8.8%. The Black teen unemployment rate jumped to 17.9%.

Also, those with low educational attainment deserve attention. Job levels for those with less than a high school diploma are 7.5% below pre-pandemic levels; for those with a B.A., job levels are 0.5% above pre-pandemic levels. How about real training programs linked to real jobs for those with less education? I may be dreaming.

Toxic Workplaces

In the BLS’s survey of non-farm jobs at business and government organizations, there was disappointing news.

Just 235,000 jobs were added in August. Each of the previous two months added a million jobs. Quite a decline. One of President Biden’s economists, Jared Bernstein, warned us not to focus on a single month, which is a good general rule.

But Biden and others have linked the slowdown to a huge health-and-politics problem that is not going away soon: the spread of the Delta variant (and other variants to follow) and the refusal of right-wing governors and legislators to push people to get vaccinations and to wear masks. Shots and masks help keep businesses and other institutions openThere is a long way to get to full employment as defined by many mainstream economists – which is what these governors say they want. But hospitals are overwhelmed in areas where the variant is in control, and workers’ anxieties about toxic workplaces have been fired up again. Even professors. Some have quit rather than work in classrooms full of unmasked students.

Somewhat fewer people are going to restaurants and bars (Open Table reservations have slipped), and some employers are dialing back hiring plans. These facts help explain why employment in bars and restaurants fell by 42,000 in August. And that happened despite raising pay levels. For the whole leisure and hospitality sector, hourly wages rose 13% over the year – less after inflation, but still a substantial increase.

The Big Rethink Continues

COVID-19 is not the only reason people are reluctant to return to work. Sometimes the jobs just aren’t there; NJFAN members such as I believe that the truly unemployed vastly outnumber job openings. But there is a mix of other factors. Some people cannot find child care. Also, in many sectors, including the restaurant business, many jobs are lousy: Supervisors can be mean, customers may be getting testier, and benefits are low to non-existent. And although pay rates are rising in the whole leisure and hospitality sector, they are still, on average, the lowest of any major occupational sector.

So if you are like many unemployed people right now, you may be thinking hard about your career future. Can you find a job that will give you halfway decent material rewards and also let you be happy or not too unhappy about going to work every day?

Unemployment benefits have helped people who could not find any work or who just wanted a pause. However, whether one lived in a state that kept the $300 supplement or cut it off did not make much difference. Job growth was about the same in either kind of state. The conclusion that the $300 and the earlier $600 supplements were not central factors in people’s decisions about whether to return to work seems to be widely accepted, even by someone at the Wall Street Journal. But not by many state-level Republican leaders.

Soon we will know more about the effects of government income supports. Over the Labor Day weekend, job-related pandemic benefits ended. The $300 supplement, the 86 weeks of benefits for those normally not eligible for unemployment compensation, such as gig workers, and the federal addition of 53 weeks to the standard 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits – these are gone. (If you forgot to file for events that occurred before Sept. 4, you might still be able to do that.)

More Poverty

It will be interesting and depressing to study the impact of this severe reduction of benefits on household welfare and the state of the economy.

Will many more people have to take lousy jobs? Will some people try to get by for a while on savings and a combination of other government benefits, such as expanded food stamps, the increased child tax credit, and unspent federal funds for rental assistance? Whatever happens, I think millions of people now above poverty lines will fall below them. And the economic recovery will slow.

By the way, on Sept. 14, the U.S. Census Bureau will release official poverty numbers for 2020. We may then learn whether scholars were right who claimed that poverty rates fell faster last year than in any other year since we began keeping the numbers in the 1960s.

Frank Stricker is a board member of the National Jobs for All Network, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and author of “American Unemployment: Past, Present, and Future” (2020). He is an emeritus professor of history and interdisciplinary studies, California State University, Dominguez Hills.

The Full Count: August 2021

Unemployment Data

Officially unemployed: 8.4 million (5.2%)

Hidden unemployment: 10.2 million
(Includes 4.5 million people working part-time
because they can’t find a full-time job;
and 5.7 milion people who want jobs,
but are not actively looking)

Total: 18.6 million (11.1% of the labor force)

There are 1.7 job-wanters for each available job!

For more information and analysis, visit:  www.njfac.org

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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