Wake up, Washington, jobs landscape is deteriorating

The first several months of 2011 showed steady and strong improvements to the nation’s employment picture, and there were reasons for optimism for the near future.

That optimism is now long gone. If May’s job numbers were a punch to the gut, June’s job numbers felt like getting kicked while already on the ground.

Expectations were that the job numbers would tick higher after an awful May, but the opposite happened — in June, the economy created even fewer jobs, totaling just 18,000 for the month. The unemployment rate also went up, reaching 9.2%.

All told, the private sector gained 57,000 jobs, while the public sector lost 39,000 jobs, due entirely to budget cuts at the state and local level.

Yes, the economy is still adding jobs, but it’s hard to overstate how dreadful this recent turn of events is. Just to keep up with population growth, the economy should be adding over 150,000 jobs a month. To bring down the unemployment rate quickly, we’d look for 300,000 jobs a month or more. A report showing 18,000 jobs created in the month is just terrible.

Making matters even worse, the totals from April and May were also revised downwards, adding insult to injury.

If our political system were in any way sane, elected leaders would look at these numbers and conclude that the economy desperately needs a boost. Job creation should be the first, and arguably only, priority on the minds of policymakers. Instead, the only topic of discussion allowed in Washington is about debt reduction — which takes money out of the economy and makes unemployment worse.

This jobs report is a flashing red light. It’s a wake-up call. It’s a screaming siren. Pick your metaphor — the point is, we have a jobs crisis, not a debt crisis. The longer we’re stuck in the wrong conversation, the longer it will be until conditions improve.

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. Also note, some of the numbers from early 2008 have been revised slightly.)