Unemployment: Cutting Through the BLS BS

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations, the unemployment rate in Bend is 9.9%. But what is it really?

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According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations, the unemployment rate in Bend is 9.9%. But what is it really?


Critics have long complained that the BLS number greatly understates the true rate of unemployment. The BLS counts the "underemployed" - people who want to work full-time but are only able to get part-time jobs - as if they were fully employed. And it leaves out "discouraged workers" - those who have simply given up trying to find a job.

In a column in Tuesday's New York Times, David Leonhardt estimated that while the "official" national unemployment rate in December was 7.2%, the true unemployment rate is probably somewhere north of 13%. Using that rough yardstick, the real unemployment rate in Bend could be pushing 20%.

In Jefferson and Crook Counties the picture is even grimmer: The official rate there is hovering around 12%, which means the real rate could be almost 24%. The statewide rate is 8.1%, according to the BLS.

(Incidentally, can someone explain why, if tourism and destination resorts are such great engines of prosperity, unemployment is always higher and wages are always lower in Central Oregon than in Oregon as a whole?)

The bad news just keeps coming. Word today is that Jeld-Wen, one of the area's largest private-sector employers, is laying off 51 of the workers at its Bend plant. As a manufacturer of windows and doors, it's been especially hard hit by the collapse of the housing market and the construction industry.

Silver linings? The Eye can't see any. But Leonhardt kind of glimpses one, pointing out that the current downturn isn't as bad as the recession of the early 1980s, when "real" unemployment peaked at over 16%, much less the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the national jobless rate probably reached 30%.

But it doesn't look like we've hit bottom yet, and if history is any guide the bottom in Central Oregon will be deeper and we'll stay there longer than the rest of the country. It wasn't until the early 1990s that Bend really began to bounce back from the recession of the early '80s.

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