Why 9.7-Percent Unemployment Feels Better Now

The economy gained 162,000 jobs in March, the most significant growth in three years. The unemployment rate did hold steady at 9.7 percent, still high by just about any measure, but there's still a psychological impact of a positive jobs report on consumers and workers.

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As Dan Schorr mentioned, the economy gained 162,000 jobs in March, according to the U.S. Labor Department - the most significant growth in three years. But the unemployment rate held steady at 9.7 percent, which is still high by just about any measure. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: This is the jobs report where the labor market turned the corner, according to a lot of economist types, where sustained job losses are replaced with sustained job creation.

Mr. KARL MILLS (Jurika, Mills & Keifer): This number was the big number that everybody was looking for this week.

KEITH: Karl Mills is the chief investment officer with Jurika, Mills & Keifer.

Mr. MILLS: It's in the right direction, and that should be good.

Mr. JOHN ENGLISH: It's encouraging - but not super encouraging.

KEITH: That not-so-glowing assessment comes from John English. He's not an economist. Until this week, he was unemployed.

Mr. ENGLISH: This is my fifth day now.

KEITH: English had been unemployed since January, when the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, where he worked, was forced to shut down.

Mr. ENGLISH: I'm employed again. A couple of my friends, this past month or so, have become employed again. And you know, it seems to be turning around but very slowly.

KEITH: He says that uneasy feeling he had when he was looking for work is still coloring his financial decisions. Gary Frances isn't celebrating the jobs report, either.

Mr. GARY FRANCES: I try not to look too much. It's kind of like looking at the 401(k) numbers. You just kind of ignore it, and it reduces your stress a little.

KEITH: Frances has spent most of his career in manufacturing, working as a mechanical engineer - that is, until a little more than a year ago, when he was laid off.

Mr. FRANCES: The other day was the first time I actually got a response from any job that I had applied for in pretty much that entire time.

KEITH: One fairly positive government jobs report can't undo 100 job applications that went nowhere. Frustration is entirely normal, says job search expert Rick Gillis.

Mr. RICK GILLIS: There is a very real job-search fatigue that sets in. It's a lot of work to find a job and then, of course, there's all the stresses of normal life going on, and you dont have an income to address those stresses.

KEITH: Most people focus on the unemployment rate, which is currently 9.7 percent. But Gillis looks at something else underemployment, and that's near 17 percent.

Richard Curtain is the director of Surveys of Consumers at the University of Michigan. He says there's plenty of bad hiding in the latest employment numbers.

Mr. RICHARD CURTIN (University of Michigan): Long-term unemployment increased; working part-time because you can't find full-time work or more hours has increased. And so the pain of unemployment still persists.

KEITH: He says the consumers he's surveyed have been expecting a positive shift for some time now. But the improvements are still small compared to the massive job losses over the last two years. And to keep pointing out the negative just a little bit longer, more than half of the 162,000 jobs created in March were temporary.

Aileen Heinberg is a psychologist who specializes in financial decision-making at the Rand Corporation. She says temporary and part-time work dont fill the void created by a job loss.

Ms. AILEEN HEINBERG (Rand Corporation): When you look at the outcomes and sort of the psychological well-being of people who have to take these kind of jobs, they look a lot more like people who are unemployed than people who are really in the jobs they would normally be having.

KEITH: There's another reason. This, the most positive jobs report in three years, isn't likely to cause rampant good feelings and free spending. It's something behavioral economists talk about - losses loom larger than gains. Or in other words, the bad news of a 9.7 percent unemployment rate counts more than the good news that the economy created 162,000 jobs.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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