May 7, 2004


The scariest numbers
by Deborah Young

By the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ count, 5.7 percent of U.S. workers were unemployed in March. That sounds rather benign. But when translated to 8.4 million people out of work, the number sounds scarier. It’s scarier still when you consider that 8.4 million is slightly more than the population of New York City—it’s more than double the number of people who lived in the state of Missouri in 1950, and it’s about a third of Iraq’s population.

Granted, 8.4 million doesn’t seem very imposing when put in context with the U.S.’s total civilian labor force, which the BLS says is 146.7 million (138.3 million employed and 8.4 million unemployed).

But with a closer look at the BLS numbers and the agency’s explanation of them, the 8.4 million doesn’t begin to represent the total casualties of today’s chilly economy. In March, another 4.7 million people who wanted full-time jobs could only secure part-time work. Although these 4.7 million people are working, most of them probably don’t get paid enough to pay their basic living expenses. Many of them are probably struggling to pay their rent or mortgages. Others have probably had to move in with relatives or friends. Many are probably eating less these days.

Then, there were the 1.4 million souls who wanted to work and had been looking for a job during the past year. BLS didn’t count them as unemployed because they hadn’t actively looked for a job during the four weeks preceding the BLS survey. There were also 514,000 people who got discouraged and simply stopped looking for a job.

But the scariest number of all is the number of people who are working every day but don’t have what we would call a real job. They’re the temporary workers who often work in low-level service jobs. They might be answering the phones at insurance companies or serving as tellers at a local bank. They might be temporary secretaries and receptionists. They work in your community, but they probably don’t have the funds to help support the community.

Many of them are likely shopping at Wal-Mart for items they can buy for less than they’d have to pay at a more high-end supermarket. They can’t afford to support the high-end stores in the neighborhood, the stores that pay better wages and offer more product choices. They can’t afford to donate to public radio and television, although they may be listeners and might want to contribute. They can’t afford to each out much. When they do eat out it probably won’t be in one of the community’s upscale eateries.

Many of these marginally employed workers will be unable to pay credit card bills. Some will leave their residences owing big utility bills that will eventually be written off. When they get sick, they will often rack up an emergency room bill that the hospital will eventually have to write off.

Marginal workers often don’t have medical benefits, and they usually have no idea how long they will be working at a particular company. They might have been out of a real job for more than a year. So when they’re between temp jobs the unemployment check they get might be less than $300 a week.

The government counts them as employed, but they are not employed in the modern sense. They are simply working from one day to the next, without benefits, without any commitment from their employers. They are simply existing, often without a net.

And their misfortune affects the lives and livelihoods of others in their communities. Yet it is unclear how many of them there are, how long they’ve been on the margins of the workforce. And members of the current administration keep quoting the numbers that don’t include these people or others who might have “permanent” jobs but are still severely underemployed.

Bottom line: If you add the marginal workers that BLS didn’t count to the unemployment figures, the 8.4 million unemployed in March becomes about 15 million. Fifteen million people, that’s enough to populate five Jamaicas. It’s slightly less than the total population of California in 1960. It’s nearly two-thirds of Iraq’s population.

Deborah Young can be contacted at



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