Jobless rate raises question: How much better can it get?

A drop in the unemployment rate to a 16-year low raises a tantalizing question about the job market: How much better can it get?

Earlier this year, economists worried that the low unemployment rate meant businesses would struggle to find workers and that would drag down the pace of hiring. Those fears were heightened by a tiny job gain in March and modest hiring in May.

Yet Friday’s jobs report suggests such concerns are premature. Employers added 209,000 jobs, after a solid gain of 231,000 in June, the Labor Department said. The unemployment rate ticked down to 4.3 percent, from 4.4 percent, matching the low reached in May.

The U.S. economy is benefiting from steady growth around the world, with Europe and Japan perking up and China’s economy stabilizing. Corporate revenue and profits are growing too, and the stock market has hit record highs.

Economists were particularly encouraged by the fact that more Americans are coming off the sidelines and finding jobs. For the first few years after the recession, many of the unemployed stopped looking for work.

Some were discouraged by the lack of available jobs. Others returned to school or stayed home to take care of family. The government doesn’t count those out of work as unemployed unless they are actively searching for jobs.

That trend began to reverse last year and has continued into 2017. To many economists, that means robust hiring could continue for many more months, or even years.

“There’s more people willing to work than the unemployment rate would have you believe,” said Nick Bunker, a senior policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a liberal think tank.

President Donald Trump celebrated the data in a tweet shortly after the numbers were released. “Excellent Jobs Numbers,” he wrote, “and I have only just begun.”

Trump technically tweeted too early: His comment was posted at 8:45 a.m., just 15 minutes after the report was released. Federal rules specify that White House officials should wait for an hour before publicly commenting. The rule is intended to allow the data to be released without political spin.

President Barack Obama’s former top economic adviser, Jason Furman, noted the slip-up, calling it a “minor transgression.”

The pace of hiring so far this year, while solid, is pretty much the same as it was last year under Obama. Employers have added an average of 184,000 jobs a month through July, compared with 187,000 in 2016. Monthly job gains topped 200,000…

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