Gallup’s CEO Calls the Official U.S. Unemployment Rate a “Big Lie”

American consumersI’ve blogged before about how the American public doesn’t seem to be responding to the news that the country has been out of its economic recession for a number of years now.

It’s not for lack of trying.  From the White House and other politicians to government agencies, financial industry practitioners and news media articles, there’s been a steady stream of speeches, announcements, news items and commentary lamenting the disconnect between the perception and the reality.

Plus … I’m reminded often by my business counterparts who work in Europe and Asia that the situation is much better in America than in many other countries.  I consider it advice to “count our blessings,” as it were.

With this as backdrop, it’s easy to fall into the paradigm of thinking that the American public is simply being unrealistic in its expectations for economic recovery — and the recovery’s ability to reach into all strata of society.

But then … along comes a commentary by Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of the Gallup polling organization.

Jim Clifton Gallup CEO
Jim Clifton

In addition to heading what is arguably America’s most famous polling company, Mr. Clifton is a keen observer of economics and public policy.  He is also the author of the book The Coming Jobs War (published in 2011).

The gist of Clifton’s commentary is that the official unemployment rate, as reported by the U.S. Department of Labor, is very misleading.

Moreover, it’s Clifton’s contention that the very way the Department of Labor calculates the unemployment rate goes straight to the heart of the disconnect between the experts and the “person on the street.”

Here’s what Clifton wrote in a column released earlier this month:

“If a family member or anyone is unemployed and has subsequently given up on finding a job — if you are so hopelessly out of work that you’ve stopped looking [for work] over the past four weeks — the Department of Labor doesn’t count you as unemployed. 

That’s right:  While you are as unemployed as one could possibly be, and tragically may never find work again, you are not counted in the [unemployment] figure we see relentlessly in the news — currently 5.6%.”  

official U.S. unemployment rate
The official U.S. unemployment rate as reported by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Clifton’s estimation, right now as many as 30 million Americas are either out of work or severely unemployed.  That would equate to an unemployment rate far higher than the reputed 5.6% figure.

But it goes even beyond that.  Clifton points out another clue as to why the perception gulf between the “statisticians” and the “street” seems so wide — and he puts it in the form of two examples:

“Say you’re an out-of-work engineer or healthcare worker or construction worker or retail manager.  If you perform a minimum of one hour of work in a week and are paid at least $20 — maybe someone pays you to mow their lawn — you’re not officially counted as unemployed in the much-reported 5.6% [figure]  

Few Americans know this. 

Yet another figure of importance that doesn’t get much press:  those working part time but wanting full-time work.  If you have a degree in chemistry or math and are working 10 hours part time because it is all you can find — in other words, you are severely unemployed — the government doesn’t count you in the 5.6%.   

Few Americans know this.”

Clifton doesn’t mince words in his characterization of the official unemployment rate; he calls it a “Big Lie” — one which has consequences that go well-beyond simply the stats being arguably wrong.

Here’s how he puts it:

“… It’s a lie that has consequences because the Great American Dream is to have a good job — and in recent years, America has failed to deliver that dream more than it has in any other time in recent memory.   

A good job is an individual’s primary identity — their very self-worth, their dignity.  It establishes the relationship they have with their friends, community and country.  When we fail to deliver a good job that fits a citizen’s talents, training and experience, we are failing the American Dream.”

Statisticians and economic policy experts can and do disagree about what constitutes a “good job” in America.  The Gallup organization defines it as working 30 or more hours per week for an organization that provides a regular paycheck, with or without other benefits.

That’s actually a pretty low-bar for what defines a “good job.”  But however jobs are defined, the U.S. economy is currently delivering at a rate of just 44%, which equates to the number of full-time jobs as a percent of the adult population (age 18 and over).

It would seem that the 44% figure would need to be significantly higher to really solve the challenge of available jobs.

Clifton concludes his commentary by issuing this challenge:

“I hear all the time that ‘unemployment is greatly reduced, but the people aren’t feeling it.’  When the media, talking heads, the White House and Wall Street start reporting the truth — the percent of Americans in good jobs; jobs that are full time and real — then we will quit wondering why Americans aren’t ‘feeling’ something that doesn’t remotely reflect the reality in their lives. 

And we will quit wondering what hollowed out the middle class.”

I’ve devoted significant space in this blog post to quoting Jim Clifton’s words verbatim, so as not to change their tenor or dilute them in any way.

What do you think?  Is Clifton speaking truth to power?  Or is he painting an overly negative view of things?  I welcome your thoughts and comments.

America’s small businesses: Quite bullish on 2015 … but with no thanks to the government.

Small Business Economic OutlookRecent reports on economic activity appear to show a continuation of a rather wobbly recovery of the U.S. economy since coming out of the Great Recession.

It’s a repeating pattern of one quarter of strong growth followed by the next one with weaker indices — sometimes with the stats from earlier quarters revised downward.

Still, things are still better for the U.S. economy as compared to many others around the world.

America’s small businesses appear to feel similarly about the U.S. economy.  Their perspective may be even more positive, in fact.

Illustrating this perspective, a January 2015 survey of ~850 U.S. businesses (ones that employ ten or fewer full-time or part-time workers) finds small business owners having a pretty bullish outlook on the year ahead.

In a survey conducted by web hosting company Endurance International Group (formerly Bizland), two-thirds of the respondents reported positive prospects for their businesses for 2015:

  • General business outlook is very positive: ~26% of respondents
  • Generally positive outlook: ~45%
  • Neutral outlook: ~25%
  • Negative outlook: ~5%

These findings align quite neatly with how these business owners see 2015 as compared to 2014’s performance:

  • 2015 will be positive compared to 2014: ~66% of respondents
  • 2015 will be about the same: ~29%
  • 2015 will be negative compared to 2014: ~5%

But … these positive impressions happen with no thanks to the government.  When asked if they felt that the U.S. Congress is effective in addressing the issues that are important to small businesses, a whopping 87% gave thumbs-down.

Even the changes in Congressional leadership that came about as a result of the 2014 midterm elections have done little to improve the perceptions of these business owners, as ~69% do not believe that the new leadership in Congress will be any more effective in addressing small business issues in 2015.

And what are those issues that are so important to small businesses?

They’re the usual things:  business taxes first and foremost … followed by the ability to obtain financing.

The next tier of issues includes the ability to hire workers with the appropriate skills, along with the ongoing healthcare coverage challenges.

Any other issues are basically just an asterisk at the bottom of the page …

More details on the survey results can be found here.

Americans’ Personal Outlook for 2014: The “Blahs” Have It

economic pessimismThe U.S. stock market may have achieved record-high performance in 2013, but a December 2013 poll of American consumers, conducted by Harris Interactive, is painting a decidedly different picture when it comes to the outlook for the New Year.

The degree of pessimism manifests itself in a higher percentage of adults believing that the economy will get worse (~32%) compared to those who feel it will get better (~27%).

The most optimistic contingent are Baby Boomers (age 49 to 67), where nearly 30% feel the economy will improve in 2014.  The opposite is true with the very youngest group (age 18 to 36), where only ~23% think the American economy will improve this year.

And the most pessimistic group when it comes to believing the economy will get worse?  That would be the oldest contingent (people age 68 and older), ~40% of whom share this opinion.

The message Americans seem to be sending is this:  “We may be in the fifth year of a recovery … but we’re still waiting for it to hit us.”

Comparing these Harris figures to what the pollsters recorded a year earlier, it’s interesting that the percentage of people who envision the economy “staying the same” has grown by ~11 percentage points.  So, treading water appears to be the order of the day.

How Americans are responding in their own personal lives to their views of the economy correlate to their level of general optimism or pessimism.  Here’s what the survey found in terms of their intentions for the year:

  • Cut back on my household spending:  ~45%
  • Save more in the year ahead:  ~40%
  • Pay down my debt level:  ~40%
  • Save more for retirement:  ~23%
  • Get rid of one or more credit card:  ~15%

Broadly speaking, the Harris poll findings point to a distinctly blasé environment.  And it helps explain the mediocre holiday shopping season we just witnessed – more than inclement weather and a shorter shopping days calendar can explain.

More Harris Interactive poll result details are available here.