How does the US Government calculate the percentage of people who are unemployed each month? A more fundamental question is, “What is this figure a percentage of?” (Yes, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition, but it reads better that way.)
Moving on–is it a straight percentage of all the people between the ages of 18 and 65 who could be working for wages, but are not, because they can’t find jobs? Of course not. Some of these people own businesses, are self-employed, or work for cash at whatever they can do. Some of these people are artisans and craftsmen who make items and sell them. Some of them (though not so many now) are farmers and ranchers. Some are investors, buying and selling; some are artists, musicians, and writers. Some even make a living by panhandling. And some sell their bodies in one way or another for money.
So who are the people who are represented by unemployment figures and percentages? First, notice that they are reported in round figures–9,000,000 today–a frank estimate. How are the figures gathered? They are reported to the government by employment agencies where people who work for wages come because they have lost a job that they had and are looking for a new job. They come there to collect unemployment insurance checks, and in order to collect them, they must be looking for work. People laid off from jobs where they did not have unemployment insurance, or who were fired for cause, do not collect unemployment checks and are not counted (at least this used to be the case.) People who have never had a job yet don’t count. Also, those who stop looking for work and are no longer in the “system” are not counted. Those people may become part of another government system of welfare recipients, who may be employed or underemployed, but no longer have to be.
Did anyone think the government got its unemployment figures and percentages by sending counters around to knock on doors and ask if the people living there are employed?
Did anyone think the government sent out surveys in the mail or made phone calls to every household in the country asking how many of the residents were employed, unemployed, looking for work, how long, or had given up?
Even if government did such things as samples of the national population, and even if they gave them a dollar to answer the questions and paid the postage to mail back the envelope, could the results of such methods of counting be useful or reliable?
So what does it REALLY mean when we hear that the percentage of unemployed people in Amercia is, say, 7.9% and inching up to 8.0%? It means that OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO WORK FOR WAGES, FOR EMPLOYERS WHO PROVIDE UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE (GUI), THAT PERCENTAGE OF PEOPLE WHO ARE IN THE EMPLOYMENT COMMISSION SYSTEM AND WERE LOOKING FOR WORK IN THE MONTH JUST PASSED——IS 7.9%. Edit the statistics to include only certain high-risk ethnic groups, and the numbers go much higher.
More meaningful to most people is how many of their family members, neighbors, friends, and former co-workers are out of work. But it’s apparently the best that the government can do to keep a running count, and the method that produces the most cosmetic figure for the public media.–Kaye