Jobs landscape deteriorates, unemployment up

Late yesterday, the New York Times‘ David Leonhardt offered some measurements to evaluate the monthly job totals. If May showed gains above 250,000, it’d be “very good.” If the totals were above 200,000, it’d be “relatively good.” Above 150,000 could be characterized as “coulda been worse,” while 50,000 would mean “2010 redux.”

It’s that last one that looks right this morning.

The similarities are striking. In the first four months of 2010, we saw steady and encouraging growth in the job market, and optimism was high. Then May came and the job market faltered badly. This year is starting to look exactly the same — four months of increasingly strong numbers, followed by a punch to the gut in May.

The Labor Department reported on Friday that the United States added 54,000 nonfarm payroll jobs last month, following an increase of 232,000 jobs in April. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent from 9.0 percent in April.

While any job gains at all are welcome, the pace of job growth thus far has been too slow to reverse much of the damage wrought by the Great Recession, which has left more than 13 million unemployed workers in its wake. For the last few months economists had been predicting that the economy was finally gathering steam and that a sharper bounce-back was imminent, only to be disappointed again and again.

The lackluster employment figures for May, as in months past, are largely attributed to temporary factors — like the automotive supply chain disruption caused by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the severe tornadoes that shuttered businesses in the Midwest.

Economists are hopeful that as these troubles pass, a robust recovery will finally burrow out from beneath the rubble.

In keeping with the recent trend, it’s the public sector that’s dragging down the larger total. In all, 83,000 private sector jobs were created in May, while 29,000 jobs were lost in the public sector at the same time, thanks to budget cuts at the state and local level.

Any sane person should look at these numbers and conclude that the economy desperately needs a boost. Instead, the only topic of discussion allowed in Washington is about debt reduction — which takes money out of the economy and makes unemployment worse.

Also discouraging, the totals from March and April were also revised downwards, adding a little insult to injury.

And with that, here’s the homemade chart I run on the first Friday of every month, showing monthly job losses since the start of the Great Recession. The image makes a distinction — red columns point to monthly job totals under the Bush administration, while blue columns point to job totals under the Obama administration. (The chart is now smaller to fit the redesigned website.)