Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Jobless Numbers Don't Tell The Whole Story

If the monthly jobless numbers aren't saying much, the longer-term employment trends in the United States are speaking volumes about the economy.

Those trends aren't often mentioned. The number of people who are long-term unemployed remains unchanged — more than 6 million people. The number of "discouraged workers" also remains the same. Those are people who are not looking for work because they believe there are no jobs.

The unemployment number is a fraction. The top number — the numerator — is "the number of people who are looking for a job and don't have one," explains Linda Barrington, a labor economist with the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University.


Take that number and divide it by the denominator, which "is everybody who is working or wants to be working." That math gives the percentage of people who are unemployed, which in July was 9.1 percent — almost 14 million people.

A lot people get left out of that number, though, including people who don't want to work and people who have given up looking because they don't expect to find a job.

"I know in my gut that finding a full-time job with benefits, for me, the chances are slim to none," says Jan Walsworth, who is about to turn 60.

She's about to become one of those 6 million people who are long-term unemployed. Walsworth spent 26 years as a homemaker and minister's wife. Now a divorced grandmother, she lives on a very small pension she got in the divorce.

Walsworth was laid off in February from her job in customer service. She helped people with computer problems.


"The thing that has maybe made this all the harder is the fact that that job fulfilled everything that I liked to do," Walsworth says. "I was helping people, a lot of the people that called were older, more my age. I was extremely successful. They could tell by my voice that I wasn't some 20-year-old with that impatience."

She says she hasn't had any serious responses to her job search and not having work has made her lonely and isolated.

"I miss talking to people. I go days sometimes and don't talk to anybody. I want to work again," Walsworth says, "but I have no real hope of ever doing so ... in a job that's meaningful to me."

Barrington says the long-term unemployed have to be asking whether or not the search is hopeless.

"I think for some people, there is a ratcheting-down that's going to have to take place. That may mean taking a pay cut; it may mean going back to school, and these are really difficult decisions," she says.

Barrington says it's not hopeless for the unemployed; they just have to hope for something different.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit