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Putting jobless numbers in perspective

Job seekers wait in line to speak to a recruiter during a job fair held by the City Colleges of Chicago in Chicago, Ill.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: There are more economic statistics out there than anybody can really keep track of. There are the A-list figures, like gross domestic product and the monthly unemployment report. And then in descending order you've got things like the leading economic indicators, which we learned today were positive for the second month in a row. Also the weekly unemployment report -- the number of people making their first claims for jobless benefits. That is a notoriously volatile number. It can change a lot from week to week.

But given how important unemployment is in this recession, it's getting a lot of attention. The Labor Department shared with us this morning that the number of people on the unemployment rolls has fallen for first time since early January. It is a promising sign, to be sure. But also, as Tamara Keith reports now from Washington, more less bad than actually good.


TAMARA KEITH: In the week ending June 6th there were 148,000 fewer people on the unemployment insurance rolls than the week before. Greg McBride at BankRate.com says the number of new people seeking unemployment also dropped a bit.

GREG MCBRIDE: There are still a lot of people coming through the door looking to file for unemployment insurance. But there are fewer people coming in the door than was the case just a few months ago.

Still a staggering 6.7 million people are getting unemployment checks. Economists who spend lots of time looking at data see signs of life. But what are the rest of us to think?

So, I parked myself in front of a D.C. metro station and accosted strangers with the latest numbers.

KEITH: Total unemployment insurance rolls fell by 148,000. So does that seem like good news to you?

College student Daniel Atzmon took off his aviator sunglasses to get a closer look at the data.

DANIEL ATZMON: I mean when you still have a number like 6.7 million unemployed, and you see the total unemployment rate still rising, it doesn't really do it for me.

Accountant Marcus Oliver didn't see good news either.

MARCUS OLIVER: Unfortunately, I don't really buy into the numbers that you get from the government. I think there's always something a little bit under the rug.

He's right, sort of. Andrew Stetner with the national employment law project says people who have been unemployed more than six months, and are now getting extended benefits, are counted differently.

ANDREW STETNER: The total number of people on unemployment benefits has not dropped. It's just people are moving from the state benefits to the extension.

And maybe this proves you can't read too much into any one number.

In Washington, I'm Tamara Keith for Marketplace.

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