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What New Jobs Report May Tell About The State Of The U.S. Economy

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Beyond the headline of the jobs report, there is a lot more to parse, so we've got Elise Gould on the line. She's senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Welcome.

ELISE GOULD: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: If you could use one word to describe this jobs report, what would it be?

GOULD: Surprising. I'd have to say it was surprising. I did not expect to see the gains that we saw in May.

MCCAMMON: What do you make of that?

GOULD: Well, I think that we've seen about 10 million more initial unemployment insurance claims between April and May. So I expected to see more losses. At the same time, we did have some states opening up. And those are welcomed gains as long as the health consequences aren't offsetting. At the same time, job losses since February still are almost 20 million. They're at 19.6 million, about 13% below its February level. So it's really a moderate good news. Of course, the gains were not equal across the economy.

MCCAMMON: Right. And many economists had predicted that we were going to see Great Depression-level numbers in this report, as you know. But even with good numbers overall, there are, as you note, still some causes for concern. Let's start with job losses in the public sector, those local and state government jobs. What are we seeing there?

GOULD: We are seeing devastating losses. So it's true the private sector did see some gain - some mild gains - really not much to make up for the huge losses we saw. But employment continued to decline. Public sector employment, particularly local government education, accounted for most of that decrease. We've seen that over the last three months. State and local government jobs have declined 1.6 million. And nearly half of them are in these public school jobs - so public K-12, public sector education jobs.

MCCAMMON: We also saw the unemployment rate for white and Latino workers go down - good news - but it ticked up slightly for African American and Asian workers. What do you think is behind that?

GOULD: Yeah, it's absolutely the case. There were marked improvements among white workers, but not for black workers. The unemployment rate for white workers fell 1.9 percentage points in one month. What that did is it really widened the black-white unemployment gap. So while initially we saw job losses across the board pretty much for everybody, some of those losses more devastating than for others, it seems like adding insult to injury. The recovery already discriminates.

MCCAMMON: Your colleague at the EPI, Heidi Schierholz, pointed out on Twitter this morning that millions of people are not being counted in these jobs numbers because, of course, to be counted, you have to be currently searching for a job. And a lot of people aren't because they don't feel safe amidst the pandemic. How concerned should we be about that?

GOULD: Well, I think that if we want to look at how well the unemployment rate is measuring, it's measuring one thing. But if you were to count those other workers, as Heidi Schierholz points out, if you were to count those workers that have been sidelined, aren't actively looking because health officials are still saying stay home. So they're rightfully not looking. They're also reporting that they are - they're misclassified. They're reporting that they're employed but not at work. That's - they're probably temporarily laid off. And if you add all those in, the unemployment rate would be 19.7% in May. That's much larger than the number that was actually reported. So that's almost 1 in 5 workers that are unemployed. That economic pain is extensive.

MCCAMMON: And in just a few seconds we have left, what will you be looking out for in the next jobs report?

GOULD: Well, hopefully the recovery will be more broadly based. And hopefully it won't just be white workers that are seeing these gains, Hispanic workers seeing some mild gains. We'll actually see those gains as well for black workers as the recovery takes hold.

MCCAMMON: Elise Gould is senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. Thanks so much, Elise.

GOULD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF T-PAIN FEAT. CHRIS BROWN SONG, "FREEZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.