The Democratic White House and the Republicans who control the House of Representatives each found the December jobs figures released today mildly encouraging. While the administration, however, took credit for the steady albeit slow improvement, the new Republican chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee said the plodding economy points up the need to change failed administration policies.
From yet another corner of government, the quasi-independent Federal Reserve System, Chairman Ben Bernanke painted a gloomier picture of anemic job growth for the next four or five years.
The U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 9.4 percent for December 2010 versus the 9.8 percent recorded in the previous month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Overall payroll gains amounted to 103,000, up from the revised gain of 71,000 for the previous month. The government payroll decreased by 10,000, so private payroll gain was 113,000.
Many economists had expected overall payroll to rise by 150,000, private payroll to gain 162,000, and the unemployment rate to drop to 9.7 percent.
December's payroll report was dramatically improved from November's report, for which the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent and the first estimate of the overall payroll gain was only 39,000.
Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, noted that the figures capped 12 consecutive months of growth that added 1.3 million private sector jobs to the economy during 2010, the strongest private sector job growth since 2006.
Goolsbee said the overall trend of economic data over the past several months has been encouraging, due in large part to the initiatives passed by this Administration, but we still have a ways to go.
He added that the measures passed by Congress in December that extended the middle class tax cut and unemployment insurance are vital to sustaining the recovery.
Goolsbee said other administration initiatives - incentives for businesses to invest and hire domestically, investments in education and infrastructure, and promotion of exports - will keep the recovery moving.
He admitted, however, that unemployment is still unacceptably high and warned of bumps in the road ahead.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-MN, the new head of the workforce committee, said the Department of Labor's figures indicate an economy that is on the mend but still struggling.
Kline said the pace of job creation continues to fall short of what we need to recover from the damage of the past recession, and it underscores the urgency of our efforts to block job-killing policies and regulations and get our fiscal house in order.
He maintained the standard Republican position on the economy, saying the federal government cannot force a recovery, but can help by giving individuals, small businesses, and entrepreneurs the sense of economic certainty they need to spend, hire, and invest.
Our economy is showing modest yet promising signs of building steam, and if there was ever a time for Washington to get out of the way, it is now, Kline said. The strength and resilience of the American people can't be beat, but bad government policy can slow it down. The last thing working families and small businesses need is more government regulation, spending, and debt.
Meanwhile, Bernanke was warning that it could still be a long while before unemployment falls to more normal levels.
Persistently high unemployment, by damping household income and confidence could threaten the strength and sustainability of the recovery, the Fed chief said today.
Moreover, roughly 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or more. Long-term unemployment not only imposes exceptional hardships on the jobless and their families, but it also erodes the skills of those workers and may inflict lasting damage on their employment and earnings prospects, he said.
An even starker picture emerged from Douglas Borthwick, a managing director at Connecticut-based Faros Trading.
He said the change in nonfarm payroll remains disappointing and the drop in the unemployment rate to 9.4 percent reflects the decline in the labor force participation rate, which fell to 64.3 percent, the lowest in more than 26 years.
The unemployment rate did not drop because people found jobs. It has dropped because the labor force is dropping out and giving up the search. This is very negative for consumer confidence and the economy in general, Borthwick said.
Rather than the slow but steady recovery politicians on both sides of the aisle spoke of, Borthwick said the US is truly only a few years into its lost decade.