Job numbers beat expectations, unemployment drops

I think it’s fair to say we were due for some good economic news — or at least less-bad news.

Going into this morning, estimates suggested the economy added about 60,000 jobs in July. On the high end of the projections, we may have reached 85,000, though most analysts expected far fewer.

Given the expectations and the larger global concerns — most notably yesterday’s unpleasantness on Wall Street — it came as a very welcome surprise this morning when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the jobs report from July. The results: the economy created a net total of 117,000 jobs. The national unemployment inched just a little lower, dropping to 9.1%.

All told, the private sector gained 154,000 jobs, while the public sector lost 37,000 jobs, due entirely to budget cuts at the state and local level. Both the overall jobs picture and the private-sector numbers were the best results we’ve seen since April, and the public sector numbers wouldn’t have been quite so bad were it not for the now-resolved government shutdown in Minnesota.

Making matters slightly better still, the totals from May and June were both revised upwards.

That’s the encouraging news. The far-less encouraging news is that exceeding expectations is not the same thing as a jobs report that’s actually good. An economy adding 117,000 jobs a month isn’t quite keeping up with population growth, and to bring down the unemployment rate in a hurry, we would be looking for totals well over double the number we see in this morning’s report.

This is, in other words, good news only to the extent that we thought it’d be awful news. I’m happy to accept incremental progress — inching ahead is better than falling behind — but if policymakers in Washington see this report and conclude no action is necessary, they’re making a tragic mistake. We’re still in the midst of a jobs crisis, and while many of us were relieved by the July numbers, they’re not even close to where we need to be.

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. It’s later than usual because the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website crashed.)