Jobless Rate At 8.9 Percent

The Labor Department says the economy lost another 539,000 jobs in April. Although that's not a good number, it's better than some of the steeper losses earlier this year. The unemployment rate is at 8.9 percent.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The economy lost another 539,000 jobs in April according to the Labor Department. That's not a good number, but it is a better number. As President Obama noted today, it's an improvement over some of the steeper losses we saw earlier this year.

President BARACK OBAMA: Step by step, we're beginning to make progress. Of course that's no solace for those who've lost their jobs.

NORRIS: In fact, many more people will lose their jobs in the coming months. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, some economists think the worst could be behind us.

FRANK LANGFITT: It's not often the disappearance of more than half a million jobs is seen as a sign of hope. But in this recession, it might be. April marked the first time in months that job losses were below 600,000. John Sylvia is chief economist at Wachovia.

Mr. JOHN SYLVIA (Chief Economist, Wachovia): The pace of job losses in the private sector have definitely moderated. I think it's a good sign that the economy is bottoming here in the second quarter.

LANGFITT: Let's be clear: that doesn't mean jobs are rebounding. Lawrence Katz teaches labor economics at Harvard.

Professor LAWRENCE KATZ (Labor Economics, Harvard): In any long run perspective, you know, the labor market is getting weaker. But in the context of the last six months, there's actually a slight bit of improvement - not that the labor market's getting better, but that it's getting worse a little more slowly.

LANGFITT: And even with that qualified statement comes some caveats. Last month, the unemployment rate jumped to 8.9 percent. Many economists think it will hit 10 percent. And the April job numbers aren't quite as good as they appear. Losses in the private sector were offset by the government's hiring of workers for next year census. But overall the pace of layoffs has ebbed a bit. John Sylvia of Wachovia says employers have already got rid of so many people, they're pausing before dumping a lot more.

Mr. SYLVIA: I think a lot of firms have simply scaled back to what they think is sustainable production.

LANGFITT: Another factor appears to be the rise in consumer spending. After drastically cutting back last year, people are opening up their wallets again. Wal-Mart sales for instance grew up 5 percent last month. Nigel Gault is an economist with IHS Global Insight, a financial analysis firm. He says consumers seem more confident these days and even if much of that confidence is just in their heads, it helps.

Mr. NIGEL GAULT (Chief Economist, IHS Global Insight): I think psychology certainly does have an influence because it influences how far the economy falls. It doesn't cure the underlying problems. That's going to take a long time.

LANGFITT: Since the recession began 17 months ago, the nation has lost 5.7 million jobs. Economists don't expect the country will start adding jobs until the end of this year or sometime next. Larry Mishel runs the Economic Policy Institute, a labor oriented think tank. He says that as people search for hopeful signs, they need to be realistic about how long it will take for jobs to rebound.

Mr. LARRY MISHEL (President, Economic Policy Institute): It's normal for people to be looking for the turnaround, for something that indicates a change in trend. What's I think important to keep your eye on is that the trend is that we've lost tremendous amount of jobs. We have a deep job hole.

LANGFITT: Its true, but there still is a little growth out there. Last month the economy added 17,000 health care jobs and President Obama hopes that government stimulus spending will either create or save many, many more.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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U.S. Jobless Rate Climbs to 8.9 Percent

The nation's unemployment rate surged to 8.9 percent in April, its highest level in more than 25 years, but the 539,000 jobs shed represented the fewest losses in six months, the Labor Department said Friday.

President Obama called the latest numbers "somewhat encouraging" but added that the losses were "still a sobering toll."

"It underscores the point that we're still in the midst of a recession that was years in the making and will be months or even years in the unmaking," the president said, adding that Americans "should expect further job losses in the months to come."

The 539,000 jobs shed represented the fewest losses in six months, the Labor Department said, and the news was met by Wall Street investors with cautious optimism, sending the markets up sharply.

The figure was up from March's 8.5 percent rate, but the easing of job losses surprised most economists and broke a five-month streak of payrolls shedding 600,000 or more jobs, a possible sign that the recession is bottoming out.

Companies, however, remain cautious, and many laid-off Americans are finding it tough to find new work. On Thursday, the Labor Department reported a record number of people receiving state unemployment benefits.

DuPont Co. and Microsoft Corp. were among the companies this week that said more staff cuts might be needed.

Economist Hugh Johnson of Johnson Illington Advisors cautioned that one month's numbers are not enough to go on, but he said that the snapshot looks encouraging.

The data are "clearly better than I thought," he told NPR. "Things are not quite as bad as they were in the previous six months."

"I would be cautiously optimistic. The jobless numbers seem to be leveling off," he said.

In Obama's remarks on Friday, he announced a plan to ease restrictions on government grants for education to help retrain unemployed Americans, saying the unemployment system needed to be "not just a safety net but a steppingstone to a new future."

He called for an easing of restrictions on federal Pell grants for education to help furloughed workers retrain.

"The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country, so that it's no longer just a time to look for a new job, but to prepare yourself for a better job," he said.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reported on Friday that wholesalers slashed inventories for a seventh straight month in March, cutting them 1.6 percent. That followed a 1.7 percent drop in February, the largest monthly decline on records that go back 17 years. Wholesalers saw sales plunge 2.4 percent in March, the fifth decline in six months.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost a net total of 5.7 million jobs.

March's payroll figure was revised to show a decline of 699,000, instead of the initially reported drop of 663,000. Job losses in February were also revised to 681,000 from 651,000. Government jobs were up by 72,000 after falling by 6,000 in March.

The service sector lost 269,000 positions; manufacturing shed 149,000 and construction cut 110,000 for in April.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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