New Way of Counting the Jobless: A Small Step for (Unemployed) Mankind

woman scanning want adsIf you've been jobless for more than two years, you've essentially been invisible to the federal government. Handy isn't it, for an administration that would prefer to project the image of an economy rebounding thanks to its stellar economic stimulus programs?

But the truth is, well, the truth. And that truth is that unemployment data has been skewed by a bunch of silly rules for who gets counted as being without a job and who doesn't. And there have been an awful lot of people who weren't being counted.As of Saturday, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics will raise the upper limit on how long someone can be listed as jobless from two years to five years. The measure will presumably help the think-tankers and economists better measure the severity of the country's prolonged economic downturn. I can't call it a recession anymore because the official think-tankers and economists charged with determining such things have already proclaimed the recession over. I guess the 15 million or so unemployed just didn't get the memo.

The BLS change -- and by the way, the BLS makes changes at glacial speed -- should not be taken lightly, although it will actually change very little. The two-year limit has been in place for 33 years.

Right now, interviewers who are filling out the bureau's Current Population Survey can only check off a box that says "99 weeks or over" when speaking to the long-term unemployed. Under the new change, being jobless for "260 weeks and over" will be added to the form.

My take? It's one less way the government can play ostrich. The change won't affect how the unemployment rate is calculated. And it certainly won't extend jobless benefits to those who get them. But it does make the true number of unemployed harder to ignore. Nearly 10% of the country's 15.1 million unemployed have been looking for work for two or more years and many economists expect hiring to remain sluggish through 2011. As the number of "99-plusers" grows, it has to become a force to be reckoned with.
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