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The big takeaways from Biden’s jobs report bust

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Women, teachers and health care employees all suffered from the slow rebound last month.

The labor market recovery that President Joe Biden has promised slowed again in September, with a weaker-than-expected 194,000 new jobs created.

That suggests school reopenings and the end of generous federal jobless benefits haven’t brought enough Americans back into the labor force amid the resurgence of the coronavirus.

Yet the recovery has been uneven throughout the economy, with women, teachers and health care employees suffering from the slow rebound last month, according to a Labor Department report released Friday. Among the gainers in September were white and Asian workers, retail and hospitality employees, the long-term unemployed and wage earners generally.

While the overall unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent, the drop was likely fueled by 183,000 people leaving the labor force.

Biden touted the report as another sign that his administration has delivered steady month-over-month job growth and blamed the disappointing overall number partly on the fact the survey was taken before a recent decline in Covid cases.

“Remember, today’s report is based on a survey that was taken during the week of September the 13th, not today — September 13, when COVID cases were averaging more than 150,000 per day,” the president said in remarks after the report. “Since then, we’ve seen the daily cases fall by more than one-third and they’re continuing to trend down. We’re continuing to make progress.”

Here’s a closer look at how key groups fared in September:

Women

The report showed that 309,000 women 20 years and older dropped out of the labor market in September, marking the second straight month of losses. Men in the same age group regained 182,000 jobs.

Working women have been acutely affected by the school and child care closures prompted by the pandemic, holding many back from returning to the workforce. But they were initially expected to go back to work in September, with school reopenings relieving some of the responsibilities that had been keeping them at home. But since the Delta variant of the coronavirus took hold in late summer and disrupted school plans, economists have been bracing for a devastating September for women who may have had to continue taking care of their kids amid the uncertainty. The numbers show that concern was well-founded.

Race

While other major ethnic groups have seen their unemployment rates near or below the national level throughout most of 2021, the rate among Black workers had remained near 9 percent. In September, Black unemployment fell by almost a full percentage point to 7.9 percent, narrowing the gap on the national rate of 4.8 percent. The bad news: 83,000 Black workers also left the labor force last month, probably contributing to the drop in the jobless rate.

Black workers — and women in particular — make up large shares of the workforce in health services and child care, industries that have been slower than most to recover. AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs has also argued that the stubbornly high unemployment rate among Black workers could be due to discrimination in hiring.

Hispanic workers have also been experiencing jobless rates above the national level, seeing 6.3 percent unemployment in September, little changed from August. White and Asian workers have been recovering more quickly, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.2 percent in September for both groups.

Retail and leisure

Consumer-facing industries including retail, leisure and hospitality were walloped in early 2020 by pandemic safety restrictions and business closures, facing the largest post-pandemic jobs deficit of any sector of the economy. They remain the first to take the hit when fears of the virus increase. But both sectors saw some improvement in September, which is a good sign for the economy as coronavirus cases start to recede. Leisure and hospitality added 74,000 jobs, while retail added 56,000.

Labor force participation

Beyond the topline number, the jobs reports suggests that fewer people were optimistic enough about the market to look for work last month.

While the national unemployment rate has been falling for months, the labor force participation rate — which captures how many people are either employed or actively looking for work — has remained pretty stagnant. That rate was 61.6 percent in September, not much different from the 61.7 percent in August. It’s also still down 1.7 percentage points from February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. That matters because the size of the workforce is tied to productivity, which is the basis for wage gains.

Many Republicans had predicted that the Sept. 6 expiration of federal unemployment benefits would increase employment as Americans could no longer afford to stay away from work. But since the jobless aid has ended for millions, many people have fallen out of the labor force instead and are no longer considered “unemployed.” While this can push the unemployment rate down — if you’re not actually looking for a job, you’re not counted as unemployed — it’s also a sign that there are fewer people actively available for work.

Wages

Average hourly earnings increased in September by 19 cents, bringing them to $30.85. That follows five months of significant hikes in wages and suggests that the widespread demand for workers as businesses have reopened has put upward pressure on pay, as employers compete for labor.

Long term unemployed

The longer people remain unemployed, the longer it typically takes them to find a job, which is why economists like to keep an eye on the number of those who have been out of a job for at least six months. That figure fell by nearly 500,000 last month, which is a good indicator of labor market health, as people with large gaps on their resumés can face more obstacles to reemployment and can find themselves in deeper financial trouble. However, there were still 1.6 million more long-term unemployed in the workforce last month than before the pandemic began.

Education

One of the puzzles in the jobs report was the loss of jobs in state and local public education in September — the month when schools were supposed to reopen. Instead, the market saw a notable decrease in jobs in this area — a drop of 161,000 workers, which dragged down the headline numbers.

Much of this, however, is likely due to seasonal adjustment. That’s because schools usually ramp up hiring in September for the start of the academic year, so the models that adjust for seasonal factors expect it. But this year, some of those hires may have taken place in July and August as students started earlier, making September hiring in public education slower than normal. But while the decline of 161,000 looks bad, it’s probably due in part to hires that did not happen last month rather than actual job losses, a key distinction.

About the author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter. Prior to joining POLITICO in August 2018, Rainey covered the Occupational Safety and Health administration and regulatory reform on Capitol Hill. 

About the author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on October 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Bernie’s Ideas And Biden’s Burden

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Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.” Joe Biden may have been talking about the timer, but his hapless performance in his first Democratic debate imparted an ironic twist to the words. This first debate of the season is but one of many, but it may well mark a turn in Biden’s prospects.

Slow, old, he seemed to have lost his fastball, and surely sowed doubts about the sole rationale of his candidacy: that he is the one who can take on Donald Trump.

Kamala Harris silenced the stage early in the second night’s debate, saying: “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”

That pre-packaged line is, of course, wrong. Debate audiences tend to be more engaged voters. Most watch the debates like NASCAR fans watch the speedway: They may enjoy the jockeying of the cars, but they are waiting for the collision. What’s actually said in a debate—particularly about policy—has less import than the legend that gets formed about it in the days following in social and mass media. The put-downs and bust-ups are more memorable than the policy positions. Here are five takeaways from the first round of debate.

Bernie’s World

“First of all, I agree completely with Bernie about what the fundamental challenge we’re facing as a country is, 40 years of no economic growth for 90 percent of the American people…and the worst income inequality that we’ve had in 100 years.” Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who has framed his campaign in opposition to Sanders’s reform proposals that he scorns as “candy,” acknowledged the force of the Sanders critique. Sanders, like Elizabeth Warren on the first night, was not particularly assertive in the debate. He didn’t interrupt or elbow his way into conversations, and didn’t unleash a memorable one-liner. As always, he stayed relentlessly on message.

Yet Sanders’s ideas now frame the debate in the Democratic Party—an extraordinary victory for progressives. Even Joe Biden now endorses a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, a Green New Deal, and—in reaction to Sanders’s call for Medicare for All—a public option in Obamacare. With Sanders and Warren leading the way, the Democratic candidates are forced to address the glaring, structural inequities and failures of our current system.

Biden would prefer a campaign focused on a restoration to normalcy after Trump. But even the moderate Democrats agree there is no going back. Trump is a symptom, not a cause; beating him is necessary but not sufficient. As Warren put it, “When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.” Conservative pundits like David Brooks fret that Democratic populism will leave “moderates homeless.” In fact, the populist energy driving the debate gives whomever emerges with the nomination a far greater chance against Trump.

Biden’s Burden

Biden is particularly ill-equipped to deal with the progressive ideas and movements that are driving the debate. The new populist surge—on right and left—arises because of the catastrophic failures of the center that Biden personifies. Biden, a Democratic stalwart in the Senate and the Obama White House, is burdened with a record now exposed as continually getting it wrong. Harris defenestrated him on busing and on the harsh reality of the Obama deportation policy. Sanders took him on for supporting the war in Iraq, surely the greatest foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. Bennet challenged his boast about the Obama budget deal that kept most of the Bush tax cuts in place and put harsh lids on domestic spending. No one pressed him on his support for NAFTA, China in the WTO and the TPP, or his contribution to mass incarceration, but they will in the future. The list goes on. Experience is a wonderful asset, except when the record consists of one of one bad call after another. Biden had a bad night last night, but it could easily get worse.

Harris Breakout

Without question, however, what will be remembered from the two nights of debate is Harris’s charged exchange with Biden over his opposition to busing. “I don’t believe you are a racist,” she began, “but…” She was personal, forceful and direct. Biden’s response was bumbling and inept. Harris looked, as they say, like someone that just might be able to take on Donald Trump straight up.

Harris, whose chief advisers—led by her sister—come out of the establishment Center for American Progress and the Hillary Clinton campaign, has refashioned herself to fit the populist temper of the time. She now champions Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage, and the Green New Deal. She’s a staunch liberal on social issues. In the face of progressive doubts about her less-than-sterling record as California attorney general, she’s forcefully moved to more progressive positions in this campaign.

One of her best moments in the debate came early when—in Warren-Sanders fashion—she turned on a question on how to pay for the reforms, asking, “Where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in his country…. For too long the rules have been written in favor of the people who have the most and not in favor of the people who work the most.” Warren or Sanders she is not, but she’s also not part of the nay-sayers arguing for incrementalism or a restoration of the past.

Up And Down

One debate doesn’t a campaign make, but with 20 candidates on the stage, keeping score in the early innings is useful. Clearly, on the first night, Warren stood out, Booker and Castro did well. Tulsi Gabbard eviscerated Representative Tim Ryan on Afghanistan. O’Rourke was schooled by Castro on immigration and looked hopelessly out of his depth. Bill de Blasio was more forceful than expected. Governor Jay Inslee and John Delaney did nothing to help their case.

The Money Question

Corey Booker was asked why he criticized Warren for “running around pointing at companies” like Facebook, Amazon, and Google that should be broken up. Booker reversed himself, shifting the focus to drug companies and Big Ag. The unspoken reality, of course, was that Democrats raising money from Wall Street and high-tech deep pockets may take up populist postures, but don’t want to bite the hands that feeds them. Joe Biden’s bad night began with the first question posed to him, asking, “What did you mean…?” when he told a group of wealthy donors that Democrats should not “demonize the rich,” and that “Nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change.”

On the second night, in his remorseless fashion, Sanders used his closing to lay down the marker for every candidate: “Nothing will change unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t have the guts to take them on, we’ll continue to have plans, we’ll continue to have talk and the rich will get richer and everybody else will be struggling.”

As voters try to sort through the Democratic contenders, that is a pretty good standard to measure them by.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on July 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Robert Borosage is a board member of both the Blue Green Alliance and Working America.  He earned a BA in political science from Michigan State University in 1966, a master’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University in 1968, and a JD from Yale Law School in 1971. Borosage then practiced law until 1974, at which time he founded the Center for National Security Studies.


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