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A tale of two economies

David Brancaccio Dec 2, 2011
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The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the U.S. created 120,000 new jobs in the month of November, while the national unemployment rate fell to a surprising 8.6 percent.

The report was better than expected, and a relief from the 9 percent that’s plagued most of 2011. It’s the lowest the rate has been in two and a half years.

Still, it’s not all good news. The November numbers show 315,000 people are no longer in the labor force, typically people who’ve stopped looking for work.

We talked with Howard Rosen, an economist at the Peterson Institute. He says the 8.6 percent headline will excite some people, but they’ll be missing the real picture of unemployment in this country.

Rosen says it’s more accurate to assess unemployment by looking at the total number of people employed relative to the total number of people who could be working. That rate is 58.5 percent, nearly unchanged from last month and the lowest rate it’s been in almost 30 years.

Borrowing from Dickens, Rosen says the overall economic picture in the U.S. tells a tale of two economies — one that’s very profitable for corporations and another that’s devastating for American workers. Rosen says 13.3 million Americans are out of work while U.S. corporations are sitting on $2 trillion in record profits. Those companies could spend their money putting people back to work, but instead, many are buying back their own stock. And, it’s not as if the federal, state or local governments are in a position to help.

Many analysts say the U.S. will need to create around 250,000 jobs each month to starting really bringing unemployment down, more than twice the November numbers. Today’s number could have been worse, but it could have been a whole lot better, too.

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