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Just 88,000 Jobs Added in March, Labor-Force Participation Hits Three-Decade Low


The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its latest non-farm payrolls number this morning, and it’s not good: The household survey found just 88,000 jobs added in March, versus an average of 169,000 jobs over the past twelve months, and a consensus forecast of 192,000 jobs. The unemployment rate stayed essentially the same, though it actually ticked down, 7.6 percent, because the labor force shrunk significantly in the past month, by almost half a million people. The only bright spot is the revisions from the two previous months, which added 61,000 jobs combined (January from 119,000 to 148,000, and February from 236,000 to 268,000).

Because of the thousands leaving the labor force (in part attributable to economic frustration, but, as always, to a difficult-to-discern degree, in part due to America’s aging population), labor-force participation dropped to its lowest point since 1978 (63.3 percent, down from 63.5 in February). The establishment survey (used to calculate the unemployment rate) actually reported a loss of 206,000 jobs, but it’s generally considered less important than the household data, which provides the headline jobs number.

Overall, the Ides of March definitely wasn’t kind to the U.S. labor market and the economy more broadly — and nor were the Nones and the Kalends, for that matter.

Per usual, this month’s numbers will likely be revised noticeably, and revisions over the past year or so have been consistently, significantly positive. A couple consistent bright spots in the employment picture remained: The health-care industry added 23,000 jobs, while the construction industry added 18,000. The most obvious weak spot was retail employment, which lost 24,000 jobs last month — that isn’t extremely surprising, because many had predicted higher payroll taxes on all Americans would especially hit low-income Americans’ spending, but it’s not all attributable to that, probably (part of the industry’s problem actually can probably be in part attributed to the woes of two large players — JC Penney’s mismanagement, and Walmart’s still largely unexplained atrocious January and February). As Joe Weisenthal pointed out on Twitter, even Saudi America’s oil-and-gas industry lost jobs in March, 6,000, to be precise — though that industry, in terms of direct employment, is a very small slice of the American labor market.

Adding to the stagnation, average hours worked only ticked up slightly, and average hourly earnings was flat. 

Those looking to sequestration’s budget cuts to explain the weak numbers don’t have much evidence here, yet: Excluding the U.S. Postal Service (which is finally hitting insolvency, basically), federal payrolls actually expanded in March, by 2,200 jobs (as always, of course, these numbers can come in for large revisions). Some will argue that decreased spending (especially because of huge numbers of contractors in defense, which sequester has hit even harder) will manifest itself in more ways than just government payrolls, and that’s surely true — but we’ll have to wait in the coming months to see what exactly the results will be. For now, even most opponents of spending-side austerity admit this month’s disappointment doesn’t really tell us what sequestration’s cuts mean economically (see, for example, Betsy Stevenson here).


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