JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Coming up, the North Korean regime is always making headlines, but today, we take a look into the lives of ordinary North Koreans. And later in the show, a conversation with humor writer Kelly Oxford. She was a stay-at-home mom when she started blogging. Now, she's got over 400,000 Twitter followers, a sitcom development deal and a new book.
But first, Friday morning, the Labor Department announced that employers created just 88,000 jobs in March, down from the past year's average of 169,000 jobs per month. The news hits the unemployed hard, especially during sequestration budget cuts that reduce federal benefits and shrink government unemployment checks across the board.
NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax is here to update us on the jobs numbers across the country and what this means for unemployment benefits at the state level. Marilyn, thanks for joining us.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Jacki.
LYDEN: So here, we have the set of figures from February - 268,000 jobs created - lots of excitement. It's a month later, a backslide. What's going on?
GEEWAX: Well, it was a big backslide, and it was very disappointing. Economists reacted very badly, so did investors. This just was not good news, and a lot of people just sort of lost confidence in the economy.
Back in December, Congress agreed to hike taxes. And all Americans - anyone who pays that payroll tax - is seeing their paycheck get a little smaller. So there are real problems with consumer spending and concerns about going forward. Also, we had cutbacks in government spending, so there's some job losses, particularly at the postal service. So we're down 14,000 federal jobs.
LYDEN: Let's take another look at the numbers from Friday state by state. What states have the lowest and highest jobs numbers right now?
GEEWAX: If you look at California, Mississippi, Nevada, the unemployment rate is still terrible. It's like 9.6 percent. But other states - North Dakota - unemployment is at 3.3 percent, so, you know, really talking about full employment in the areas where the energy sector is booming. So most states are doing sort of a middling, you know, seven, 8 percent unemployment rate. But there really are these boom areas, and there are these real bust areas.
LYDEN: How do these benefit rules vary state by state?
GEEWAX: These programs have always been designed and run by the states. That's because, as we've just said, there's a great deal of variability in the unemployment rate. But now, generally speaking, states would give 26 weeks of unemployment benefit.
But, you know, when the recession was so bad back in 2008 and '09, Congress decided to extend them. But last year, Congress decided to focus more on reducing federal deficit, so they started cutting those extended benefits. Now, even in the worst states, the most you can get is 73 weeks. And actually, many states are down to about 40 weeks.
But there's one other thing here, Jacki. Sequestration is now cutting in, so even people who do still have their extended benefits will see them shrink by up to 10.7 percent.
LYDEN: You interviewed a young chef in southeastern Wisconsin this past week who had recently finished her extended benefits. What was the story there?
GEEWAX: Well, she had been working as a chef at a private country club, and she got laid off. And she's been looking for work. But every time she goes into a place to apply, they say you're over qualified. And she's been living on an unemployment check of $363 a week, and now that's about to go away.
LYDEN: What do advocates for the unemployed say about the budget cuts? And I'd also like to know what conservative economists say.
GEEWAX: Well, there's two ways of looking at it. Most economists believe that the extended unemployment benefits helped the economy. That is they serve as a stimulus because as soon as you get that paycheck, you spend it. There's a different way of looking at it. Conservatives say the problem is that when you extend benefits up to 99 weeks, people take their time. And then in the end, it actually hurts the unemployed because it keeps them out of the job market longer.
LYDEN: Well, we've been talking about a lot of volatility, so it seems unfair to ask you to project where this goes from here. But what do you think?
GEEWAX: Well, really, right now, we're on this edge where we had hoped for great momentum moving forward. And, in fact, we seem to be on the knife edge again wondering which way it's going to go.
LYDEN: Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. Thank you very much.
GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome.