The headline numbers in the employment report for November were worse than dreadful — and they did not reflect the true extent of the weak and worsening outlook for American jobs.

Employers axed 533,000 jobs last month, the worst monthly loss since December 1974, bringing the number of lost jobs in the last year to 1.9 million. Worse, two-thirds of the losses were in the past three months, a sign of an intensifying downturn and of more job cuts ahead.
The unemployment rate for November — which rose to 6.7 percent, or 10.3 million people — also understates the weakness in the job market.
Job loss in a recession is related to the number of jobs created while the economy was expanding. Job creation during the Bush-era business cycle was the weakest since the end of World War II, so there are simply not as many workers to lay off as in past downturns. Instead, workers’ hours have been cut, sharply increasing the number of people working part time who want full-time jobs. Involuntary part-timers and out-of-work people who are discouraged from job hunting because their prospects are dim are measured in the underemployment rate, which at 12.5 percent is now the highest since the government started keeping track in 1994.
Joblessness and the threat of joblessness will depress already dismal consumer spending, which in turn will depress business investment, leading to higher unemployment. Rising unemployment will also fuel more foreclosures, which will further destabilize the financial system and reinforce economic weakness.
One in 10 borrowers in America were either delinquent or in foreclosure in the third quarter, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, a stunning tally that does not even reflect the drag of rising unemployment in October and November. Unemployment among 25- to 34-year-olds, which includes most first-time homebuyers, is rising fast. Yet, rather than attack foreclosures directly, the Bush administration’s latest economic rescue proposal is to try to spur home buying by reducing mortgage rates. Good luck.

The political reality is that any serious response to unemployment and foreclosures will probably not occur until the Obama administration takes over. Members of Congress should be working now on another round of economic stimulus, consisting of bolstered unemployment compensation and food stamps and aid to states and localities, including money for creating jobs by rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. An anti-foreclosure plan to rework troubled mortgages en masse is long overdue and should also be passed, either as part of the stimulus or as a stand-alone measure.

Beyond stimulus, President-elect Barack Obama will need a larger recovery plan that puts employment, rising wages and savings at the center of the agenda. The selection of a strong labor secretary, whose input will be as valued as that of Mr. Obama’s Wall-Street-oriented economic advisers, is crucial. The work force needs a champion who has the president’s full attention.

* EDITORIAL NYT, December 7, 2008