Normally, an uptick in the unemployment rate would not be considered good news. But it is a peculiarity of the economic recovery that April’s increase in the unemployment rate from 8.8 percent, a two-year low, to 9 percent is actually cause for optimism.
People who are not actively looking for work are not counted in the employment figures, but as the job market improves, people re-enter it. Until they actually get a job, they are counted as unemployed.
The job market is improving — not fast enough, but it’s headed in the right direction. The economy added 244,000 jobs in April, the most since last May, and, more importantly, that number won the all-important game of expectations. Economists had predicted a more modest increase of 186,000.
And in a week that seems to have brought nothing but good news to the Obama White House, the employment figures for March and February were revised upward to 235,000 and 221,000, respectively.
The White House noted that the improvement came despite “head winds” like high oil and food prices and the economic disruption caused by the earthquake in Japan.
The new jobs figure would have been even higher except that government payrolls shrank for the sixth straight month.
Good as they are, the April numbers only are one step on a long road. The country lost more than 8 million jobs in the recession and at the pace of April’s recovery, it will take two and a half years to recover them.
There are 13.7 million Americans out of work, and almost half have been that way for at least 27 weeks. Even there, however, the percentage of those long-term unemployed fell from 45.5 percent to 43.4 percent.
The percentage of adults in the work force, either working or looking for work, is 64.2 percent, the lowest participation in a quarter-century. As the economy improves, participation could be expected to improve, meaning we could have more good news in the form of slight increases in the unemployment rate.