Explore the connection between the economic indicators and real-world issues. These lessons typically can be done in one class period.
Current Key Economic Indicatorsas of November 30, -0001
The unemployment rate for the month of April was 4.5 percent. Total employment rose by 88,000 in April.
The unemployment rate increased
Employment increased to
Goals of the Unemployment Case Study
The purpose of this case study is to report the unemployment and employment data, to provide interpretations of the significance of the changes in conditions, and to discuss a number of related economic concepts. The case ends with exercises for students and activities that teachers can use in classrooms.
The case offers an opportunity to enhance our understanding of the relevance of the announcements and the causes and consequences of one of the more important challenges economic policymakers face.
Material in italics in this case does not appear in the student version. Each case describes the most current data and trends and expands expectations of student understanding.
You may wish to use the following larger versions of the graphs and tables from this lesson for overhead projection or handouts in class:
The unemployment rate for the month of March was 4.4 percent, a decrease from the 4.5 percent in February. Total employment rose by 180,000 in March, more than the revised 119,000 increase in February.
The original press release is available at: www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm.
Definition Of The Unemployment Rate
The unemployment rate is the percentage of the U.S. labor force that is unemployed. It is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed individuals by the sum of the number of people unemployed and the number of people employed. The number of people unemployed and the number of people employed is defined as the number of individuals in the labor force. See the current calculation in Table 1.
An individual is counted as unemployed if the individual is over the age of 16 and is actively looking for a job, but cannot find one. Students, those individuals who choose to not work, and retirees are not in the labor force, and therefore not counted in the unemployment rate.
|Total civilian population||231,253,000||(excluding those under 16, members of the military, and persons in institutions)|
|- Not in Labor force||
|(retired, students, individuals choosing not to work)|
|= Labor force||
|(total population minus those not in labor force)|
|- Employed||145,786,000||(individuals with jobs)|
|= Unemployed||6,801,000||(individuals without a job and actively searching)|
145,786,000 + 6,801,000
(Note to teachers. The number of individuals employed actually differs here from the number of employed discussed later in the case. This is because the unemployment statistics and the number of employed used to calculate the unemployment rate come from different surveys than those used to track changes in the number of employed.)
Unemployment rates have ranged between 4.4 and 4.6 since last September. The year 2006 ended with an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent. These rates are below the average rate of 4.6 in 2006, 5.1 in 2007, and 5.5 percent in 2004.
The longer-run trend from the beginning of the 1990s to the 2001 recession was a decrease in unemployment rates and an increase in employment.
Figure 1 shows the rises in unemployment associated with the recession in 1990 to 1991 and the recession of 2001 with an almost decade long fall in unemployment in between. Unemployment rates continued to increase after the 2001 recession, as the economy only slowly recovered.
Unemployment rates, since reaching a high of 6.3 percent in June of 2003, have slowly and relatively steadily decreased.
Relevance of Unemployment Announcements
The unemployment announcements receive headline treatment almost every month. Changes are significant indicators of national economic conditions and have relevance to every local community as unemployment has significant costs to the individuals who are unemployed and to the entire community and the U.S. economy.
Changes in levels of employment are also included in the announcements and often receive less attention. However, the employment data are equally, perhaps even more, important indicators of the direction of the U.S. economy.
Distribution of Unemployment
Unemployment varies significantly among groups of individuals and parts of the country. Table two shows the unemployment rates for a number of groups of individuals, with unemployment rates ranging from 4.0 percent for adult men to 14.5 percent for teenagers.
Table 2: Unemployment Statistics
by Gender, Race and Age
Explanations of differences in unemployment rates among groups of individuals and parts of the country are differences in economic conditions, education levels, skills and experience, and discrimination.
A second important part of each month's unemployment announcement is the report of the number of individuals employed. The number unemployed and unemployment rates receive much of the press attention and rightfully so. But employment and a loss or gain in jobs are also important, perhaps even more important, indicators of progress in the economy. The failure of the economy to increase the number of jobs as rapidly as we experienced in the 1990s had been of particular interest and concern up until 2004.
If employment does not increase at the same rate as population growth ultimately means the economy will experience higher unemployment or increasing numbers of individuals will leave the labor force.
Since the beginning of 2004, employment has been on an upward trend at rates that will provide sufficient jobs for new entrants and that trend has continued during April.
Total nonfarm payroll employment (seasonally adjusted) rose by 88,000 in April to more than 138 million jobs. This follows a revised rate of increase of 177,000 jobs in March. The 88,000 increase has caused some concern, but the average over the last several months is greater.
Figure 3 shows that growth in employment slowed in the last part of 2000 and stopped in March of 2001. Employment decreased in all but six of the months from the beginning of the recession in March of 2001 to September of 2003. Finally in September of 2003, employment began to grow and had continued to grow since.
Figure 4 shows the monthly change in employment. The average monthly increase in jobs this year has averaged 130,000. If the same percentage of adults is to have jobs, employment needs to grow by approximately 125,000 per month and we are continuing on that path.
Interactive Interpretation of Data
Often changes in unemployment rates can be confusing as workers' and potential workers' expectations change. See if you can determine the effects of the following events on unemployment rates.
[An exception to this answer would be if significantly more workers actually lost their jobs and began looking for new ones.
In each of these instances, the challenges of interpreting changes in unemployment rates under all conditions are significant. In both cases, the unemployment rate can move in a direction that may seem to be counterintuitive. The primary lesson to take away is to be cautious with data and the interpretation of announced data.]
The Costs of Unemployment
There are significant personal costs to unemployment and these are the easiest to understand. Unemployed workers often do not have the income to support themselves or their families. The stress of being unemployed is reflected not only through the financial challenges of paying regular ongoing bills, but also through increases in alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems, and criminal activity among those who are unemployed.
State and federal governments reduce the personal financial cost of being unemployed through unemployment compensation provided to many unemployed workers. Because most workers pay the taxes that fund the unemployment compensation, the cost of being unemployed is spread among taxpayers, instead of having the entire burden fall on the unemployed workers alone.
Increases in unemployment also mean that the economy is wasting an important scarce resource – labor. Real GDP is less than it otherwise could be and that additional output is lost forever. If more individuals had been employed, production of goods and services would have been higher. Average standards of living are lower as a result of increases in unemployment.
Types of Unemployment
There are three types of unemployment, each of which describes the particular circumstances of the individual and their employment situation.
Frictional unemployment is temporary unemployment arising from the normal job search process. Frictional unemployment helps the economy function more efficiently as it simply refers to those people who are seeking better or more convenient jobs and those who are graduating and just entering the job market. Some frictional unemployment will always exist in any economy.
Structural unemployment is the result of changes in the economy caused by technological progress and shifts in the demand for goods and services. Structural changes eliminate some jobs in certain sectors of the economy and create new jobs in faster growing areas. Persons who are structurally unemployed do not have marketable job skills and may face prolonged periods of unemployment, as they must often be retrained or relocate in order to find employment.
Cyclical unemployment is unemployment caused by a drop in economic activity. This type of unemployment can hit many different industries and is caused by a general downturn in the business cycle.
At the levels of unemployment that economists consider to be the lowest possible sustainable levels (discussed below), the only unemployment that exists is due to friction in labor markets and structural changes in the economy.
Economists define the approximate unemployment rate with no cyclical unemployment as full employment. If unemployment falls to level below the full employment rate, there will be upward pressure on wages and prices. If unemployment rises to a very high rate, there will downward pressure on wages and prices or wages and prices will remain steady. In the middle is a level, or more accurately, a range, where there is not pressure on wages and prices to rise or fall.
Economists do not know for certain what that rate or range is and even if they did, it does change over time. A consensus estimate is that the full employment rate of unemployment is currently between 4.0 and 4.7 or 4.8 percent of the labor force being unemployed.
Case Study Discussion Questions
Have students complete the interactive exercise below.
What are the key parts of the unemployment announcement?[The unemployment rate for the month of April was 4.5 percent, a 0.1 percent increase. Total employment rose by 88,000 in April.]
What are the relevant economic concepts? [Unemployment Rate, Employment, Types of Unemployment.]
- What does this mean for workers? [The total amount of employed individuals rose by 88,000, however the unemployment rate rose. This signifies that a number of individuals in the growing labor force were unable to find work, this could be a signal of decreasing employment in the future. ]
[1. It can happen and did. If the labor force increases faster than normal because more entrants come into the labor force for the month and a smaller percentage of the new entrants are employed than normal, the unemployment rate will rise.
2. The unemployment rate increased slightly to 4.5%. However, it remains relatively low. Employment increased by less than a sufficient amount to provide new entrants with jobs. This has been of some concern to policy makers, but it is only a one month change.]