1930s Unemployment vs. Today: It's About People, Not Percentages

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For anyone that still has a job, percentage unemployment numbers mask the misery and potential for unrest felt by those who have lost a job and are nearing the ends of their financial (and other) ropes. Percentage comparisons with employment in the great depression (25% vs now "7.6%") seem to indicate we have a huge distance to cover if we are to approach the misery experienced in the great depression.

But a vastly more interesting and important comparison is of actual total human beings without jobs or who are severely underemployed. The number of people affected at the peak of the depression was 13.5 million unemployed vs today's official number of 11.6 million. Eleven million six hundred thousand human beings unemployed is within a dangerously short distance of the worst number the Great Depression ever printed - and the calculations then were much more conservative than they are today.

Since the 90's, 'discouraged workers', or those had given up looking for a job because there were no jobs to be had, were redefined by the Clinton administration so as to be counted only if they had been 'discouraged' for less than a year. This time qualification defined away the bulk of the discouraged workers. Adding them back into the total unemployed, actual unemployment in order to make a fair "apples to apples" comparison, as estimated by the SGS-Alternate Unemployment Measure, brings us to 17.9% in January!

Even worse, we are treated to this forward looking info from From CNNMoney.com yesterday. Since 2000, the Labor Department has also tracked hiring, job openings and layoffs. And the most recent readings on those statistics show that the level of hiring and job openings has actually tumbled more than layoffs have soared.

Through November, the number of layoffs was up 17% from year-earlier levels. But the amount of workers who were hired during November was down 26%, and the number of job openings tumbled 30%.

While layoffs are likely up from the November levels, the hit to hiring has also gotten much more severe, according to experts. And that means that once people do lose their job, it's going to be even tougher to find a new one.

The Conference Board's tracking of online job listings shows a decline of more than 1 million listings in the last two months alone. That's a 23% decline in postings since November. The weakness in job postings is widespread, with only two states, North Dakota and Wyoming, having fewer unemployed people than advertised job openings.

During the last recession in 2001, there was not nearly as sharp a drop in hiring and job openings. In fact, the hiring and job opening rates, which compare new hires and openings to the overall number of workers, are both at their lowest level on record.

And economists say that even if the number of layoffs peaks soon, the pace of hiring and job openings may remain soft for months to come.

"The issue of hiring is often overlooked," said Gad Levanon, senior economist for The Conference Board. "But it's the key to the labor market. In the last recession, layoffs reached their peak in late 2001. But hiring didn't reach its lowest level until 2003, and that's when the job losses finally ended."

While things are less dire now due to unemployment insurance, if that resource were to dry up, we would have a most daunting civil problem on our hands.