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Why don't we count all the unemployed?

Filing Unemployment

Magny Laguerre sits with career specialists, Sidalouise Charlotin, as she helps him fill out a form for unemployment benefits at a Workforce One Employment Solutions center after he was laid off three months ago on January 7, 2014 in North Miami, Florida.

Lesley Perkins is a human resources management consultant who’s been unemployed for about 3 1/2 years.

“I feel forgotten and ignored by our society,” she says.

Perkins also feels ignored by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.  It only counts you as unemployed if you’ve “actively looked for work” in the past four weeks.  But Perkins isn’t sure what that means.

“Is it actually filling out a job application or is it actually going to networking functions and trying to connect with people there?” she says.

I was confused, too, so I called Jim Walker, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist.  He says the Bureau will count you if you send out a resume as you’re surfing websites.  Or hand someone a resume as you’re networking. People who aren’t so active in their job search aren’t counted in the official jobless numbers.  But the Bureau still keeps track of them.  They’re labeled the “marginally attached.”

“People who just say 'Well, I’m not working. I would want a job but I’m not looking right now,'” says Walker.

The Bureau gets its numbers by talking to real people. It surveys 60,000 households, asking people if they’re working or looking for a job.  Justin Wolfers, a labor economist at the University of Michigan, says part of the confusion is you can be counted as unemployed, even if you don’t get an unemployment check.

“One part of the government says you’re not unemployed in the sense that they’re not going to pay you benefits. But another part says 'No, no, we’re definitely going to count you as unemployed,'” he says.

Wolfers says the Bureau’s system isn’t perfect.  But it’s about the best we can hope for, because there is no easy way to measure unemployment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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