Reasons For Slow U.S. Job Growth Unclear

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Job growth plummeted in March after several months of solid growth, with employers adding just 88,000 new workers to their payrolls. No one knows exactly why the job market stalled, but among the theories is the payroll tax increase, the sequester, more trouble in Europe and a seasonal pattern where hiring picks up in winter and tails off during the spring.


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Disappointing economic news yesterday - the job market, which had seen improvement in recent months, appears to have stalled. In March, the U.S. economy added a paltry 88,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Labor Department. It was the slowest pace of growth since last June, and less than half of what economists had expected. NPR's Dan Bobkoff has more.

DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: Yes, these jobs numbers can vary, month to month. There's a lot of statistical noise. One month's data can prove meaningless. But 88,000? That's pretty weak.

KEN GOLDSTEIN: Well, I mean, certainly was a surprise.

BOBKOFF: Ken Goldstein is an economist with The Conference Board, a research group. He says most of his peers thought we'd gain at least 180,000 jobs last month. The sectors that did see job growth include health care, construction and business services. But there were fewer people working at the mall. Retail shed 24,000 jobs last month, despite higher sales. That's why one month's numbers might not tell the whole story. But Heidi Shierholz, of the Economic Policy Institute, says if you zoom out a bit, the average monthly job growth since the beginning of 2013, is just 168,000.

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: That's not great. At that rate, we will not get down to the pre-recession unemployment rate until the end of 2019.

BOBKOFF: The unemployment rate, which comes from a different survey, did fall slightly, to 7.6 percent. But that's not, so much, because more people found work; rather, the number of people in the labor force took a big drop in March. Nearly half a million people were neither working nor looking. But Shierholz says it's more complicated.

SHIERHOLZ: The interesting part of this is that we would see the labor force participation rate dropping right now, even if the Great Recession hadn't happened.

BOBKOFF: That's because baby boomers are starting to retire. So to account for that, Shierholz looked at workers in their prime - 25- to 54 year-olds - and found big drops there, too.

SHIERHOLZ: There's just weak demand for workers.

BOBKOFF: But amidst the doom and gloom, Ken Goldstein - of The Conference Board - thinks an improving housing sector is still giving the U.S. economy momentum. He says we might be experiencing a little damage right now from higher payroll taxes and across-the-board federal budget cuts.

GOLDSTEIN: I don't think that we're really fallen off the track here. I don't think that the economy is hitting a solid brick wall. I think, rather, we're going over a speed bump. That's what makes me an optimist.

BOBKOFF: He expects job growth to pick up later this year.

Dan Bobkoff, NPR News, New York.

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