How the Economy Still Stinks for the Unemployed, in One Chart

Parts of the job market are getting better, but this graphic from the Atlanta Fed shows how bad the situation still is for some.

Miriam Abrego, 55, picks up fliers advertising jobs at the Foothill Employment and Training July 6, 2012 in Pasadena, California.
National Journal
Catherine Hollander
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Catherine Hollander
Feb. 4, 2014, midnight

Char­lotte may have spun words in­to her web, but some eco­nom­ists say data points can be just as ex­press­ive.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted last winter on the At­lanta Fed­er­al Re­serve Bank’s new “spider chart” visu­al­iz­ing the labor mar­ket’s pro­gress. With the Janu­ary jobs re­port just a few days away, let’s check back in and see how things are mov­ing.

The takeaway: The labor util­iz­a­tion in­dic­at­ors — which de­scribe the situ­ation for those who are un­em­ployed — still stink and are fur­ther from pre­crisis levels than oth­er parts of the job mar­ket right now.

A quick primer: The “spider chart” looks com­plic­ated at first glance. But, really, it’s just a way of com­par­ing sev­er­al job-mar­ket in­dic­at­ors at once, and see­ing how their pro­gress stacks up. In this in­stance, the At­lanta Fed is look­ing at 13 dif­fer­ent meas­ures of job-mar­ket health.

The chart has two rings: One in the middle, which rep­res­ents the re­ces­sion-era low point for each in­dic­at­or, and one on the out­side, which rep­res­ents the in­dic­at­or’s pre­crisis level. You can see how close each in­dic­at­or is to get­ting back to where it was be­fore the fin­an­cial crisis by look­ing at its pro­gress along the spoke.

It prob­ably won’t sur­prise you that the dark blue line rep­res­ent­ing the latest data is farthest from the out­er ring, on the whole, for the part of the chart that in­cludes the meas­ure­ments of un­em­ploy­ment, a sep­ar­ate meas­ure of people who aren’t work­ing but want to be, and of people who have to work part time for eco­nom­ic reas­ons, not per­son­al pref­er­ence. For these in­di­vidu­als, the re­cov­ery is mov­ing at a snail’s pace, even as em­ploy­ers are post­ing more job open­ings (seen on the op­pos­ite side of the chart).

When the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics re­leases its latest em­ploy­ment fig­ures on Fri­day morn­ing, re­port­ers and politi­cians are likely to seize on two num­bers: The un­em­ploy­ment rate and payroll growth. But these can be tricky fig­ures to de­cipher, re­flect­ing people de­part­ing the labor mar­ket rather than get­ting jobs, or show­ing weak­ness due to bad weath­er, re­spect­ively. Look­ing at a range of labor-mar­ket in­dic­at­ors, over time, is a good way to avoid fall­ing in­to the trap of fo­cus­ing too much on a single data point. But it’s also im­port­ant to re­mem­ber that the At­lanta Fed’s chart doesn’t tell the whole story, either. Just a broad­er piece of it.

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