The economy added 288,000 jobs in April, according to new data released Friday by the Labor Department. The unemployment rate plummeted from 6.7 percent to 6.3 percent—which is the lowest jobless rate since President Barack Obama took office at the start of the great recession.
Economists had forecasted April jobs gains of 218,000 and an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent.
The number of unemployed people dropped by 733,000 people, and the total number of Americans who are either unemployed, have given up looking for work, or are working part-time because they can't find full-time work fell from 12.7 percent to 12.3 percent last month. The jobs report brought more good news. Employment gains for February and March were revised upwards by a total of 36,000. Part of the healthy gain was due to warmer weather, which boosted seasonal employment.
Now for the not-so-good news. Another reason the unemployment rate fell is because April saw a decline in the workforce participation rate, which is the number of Americans who are working or looking for work. That number fell by 806,000 last month. The decrease in the labor force was partly due to the fact that Republicans refused to renew federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Jobless Americans are required to prove they are actively searching for work in order to continue receiving unemployment insurance; once there's less of a motivation to search, many give up looking.
The construction and retail sectors saw the largest increase in employment, with jobs gains of 32,000 and 35,000, respectively. Professional and business services added 75,000 jobs. And the economy took on a total of 15,000 government jobs.
Good or bad, you can take most of this information with a grain of salt, if you want. As Neil Irwin explained Thursday in the New York Times, businesses, journalists, and stock traders place way too much weight on the monthly jobs numbers, given the "statistical noise" in each report. In order to determine how many people are employed in the US, for example, the Labor Department conducts a huge monthly survey of 144,000 employers who employ about a third of all non-farm workers. Sampling errors are inherent in these surveys, Irwin explains, because the results are not representative of all the nation's employers. And each monthly jobs report is released before all the survey data is in, so researchers have to fill in gaps with estimates that may later end up being wrong. "Even when the economy is moving in a clear direction," Irwin writes, "the noise in month-to-month changes can be big enough to obscure any trend."
If you want longer-term trends that you can bank on, here are a few. We've had roughly zero net job growth over the past seven years, because gains in employment have been offset by population growth. The unemployment rate is still above the historical average for this stage of an economic recovery, Annie Lowrey noted in the New York Times Friday. And the black unemployment rate is stuck at more than double the white jobless rate.
"What kind of shenanigans are going on now?" That's what Darin Robbins, a Green Party member in Corning, New York, thought when he learned that a stranger had circulated a petition to place his name on the ballot for a House race.
Robbins had no plans to seek office, so he was shocked a couple of weeks ago when a Green Party secretary called to tell him that a petition had been filed in his name to run against GOP Rep. Tom Reed, the vulnerable first-term Republican who represents the 23rd congressional district in upstate New York.
The story gets stranger. A Republican operative was behind the attempt to put Robbins on the ballot. Aaron Andrew Keister, a notary public who has worked as a video tracker for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the political committee dedicated to electing GOPers to the House, filed ballot accesspetitions—each bearing the signatures of about 75 registered voters—for Robbins and a second Green Party member. If Keister's plan had succeeded, it could have helped Reed—the Northeast regional chairman of the NRCC—by putting on the ballot a progressive candidate who would likely draw votes away from his expected Democratic opponent, county legislator Martha Robertson. But Keister messed up: Because he filed the Robbins petition late and got the other Green Party member's address wrong, neither Green will appear on the ballot for the June primary or the November general election, according to New York election officials.
On Thursday—about a month after author Michael Lewis published a book charging that the stock market is "rigged"—the Securities and Exchange Commission, a Wall Street regulator, slapped a $4.5 million penalty on the New York Stock Exchange and several affiliated companies for "business practices that either violated" their own rules "or required a rule when the exchanges had none in effect."
Some of the SEC's complaints related to the high-speed, computerized trading practices covered in Lewis's book. For example, the agency said that the exchange didn't have rules to ensure that colocation is "fair and equitable." Colocation is exchanges' practice of charging brokers for the privilege of putting their computers close to the exchanges' machines, which cuts down on the amount of time it takes to transmit orders.
Lewis' book, Flash Boys, also takes on high-frequency trading—when computers running complex algorithms are able to trade faster than humans, and thus turn a profit for investors from an accumulation of split-second advantages. (My colleague Nick Baumann has more about high-frequency trading here.) Experts say Thursday's action by the SEC could fuel the debate about whether certain firms gain an unfair trading edge by using this type of technology.
The SEC stopped short of calling the NYSE's violations illegal, and the exchange agreed to pay the fine—which is small in comparison to its earnings—without admitting wrongdoing.
Nigerian women at a protest Wednesday calling on the government to rescue the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram.
Update, Tuesday, May 6, 2014: On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry offered to send a team to Nigeria to help search for the kidnapped girls, MSNBC reports.Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan accepted.
Two weeks ago, 234 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from a boarding school in the country's northernmost state of Borno by the al Qaeda-linked group Boko Haram. Today, most of them are still missing, and Nigerian lawmakers are calling on the international community to step in to help the rescue effort.
"Nigeria should seek international help," says Rep. Eziuche Ubani, who sits on the country's house of representatives' committee on defense. "The Nigerian armed forces are not in a position to defeat the insurgency in the northeast."
The schoolgirls were captured during a predawn raid on April 15 in the town of Chibok by members of Boko Haram, which the Obama administration recently designated as a terrorist organization. The group, whose name means "Western education is sinful," believes the Nigerian government has been corrupted by Western ways. In an effort to return the country to the pre-colonial days of Muslim rule, the group has terrorized the country over the past four-plus years, targeting schools in many of its killing sprees, and attacking churches, military checkpoints, highways, the UN building, and, recently, a bus station in the capital city of Abuja.
Though the abduction happened weeks ago, international press coverage of the missing girls has shot up in recent days after Nigerians criticized the foreign media's initial silence on the issue and launched the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has vowed to rescue the girls, but two weeks after the kidnapping, many of the victim's parents are losing faith in the government's efforts, especially as reports have emerged that many of them have since been married off to the Boko Haram militants.
"Nigeria has one of the best armed forces" on the continent, says Kyari Mohammed, a professor of security studies at Modibbo Adama University of Technology in northern Nigeria, "but they are not trained for asymmetric warfare." The militants disguise themselves easily amongst their fellow Nigerians in Borno, and often escape to bordering countries or hideouts in the dense northern forests.
So elected officials in the country are calling for outside aid. The government must do "whatever it takes, even seeking external support to make sure these girls are released," Nigerian Sen. Ali Ndume told the Associated Press Wednesday. His colleague, Sen. Bukola Saraki, tells Mother Jones the international community should lend a hand to Nigeria in the same way it did to families of the victims of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370.
The US gives about $1 million a year in aid to the Nigerian military and soon plans to start training Nigerian special forces to fight the insurgency in the north, but American forces would not be able to enter the country to help search for the kidnapped girls unless Nigeria officially requests that the US do so. A spokeswoman for the US State Department says that the department is "in discussions with the Nigerian government on what we might do to help support their efforts to find and free these young women."
Not everyone buys into the argument that Nigeria needs outside help. "What has happened to the girls is not what is beyond the capability of the Nigerian security forces to handle," says Mausi Segun, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Borno state. "The reports we're getting out of the North is that nothing much is being done on the part of the security forces. They are not using information provided to them by residents and locals in that region." Parents have been searching the forests near Boko Haram camps in the north on their own for over a week, but they can only do so much, as they are in danger themselves of being killed by militants. Segun says the Nigerian military should make a good faith effort to find the girls before asking for international help.
The Nigerian military doesn't have a great track record when it comes to stemming attacks by the Islamist militants. Jonathan has promised to defeat Boko Haram, but the insurgency has become bloodier than ever over the past few months. One reason for that, Ubani says, is that the military does not coordinate with security forces in the countries that border Borno state—including Chad, Cameroon, and Niger—where Boko Haram members have been known to hide out. And the Nigerian military's expenditures are not tracked, Mohammed explains, so even though the country spends about $6 billion a year on its military, it is hard to determine how much of that money goes toward fighting Boko Haram and how it's used.
Human rights advocates contend the military is not only ineffectual, but that Nigerian security forces' response to the insurgency, including the indiscriminate killing of northern Muslim men, is worsening Boko Haram violence. The terrorist group has killed some 5,000 Nigerian men, women, and children since it emerged in 2009. In the the first few months of 2014, it has already killed 1,500 people. Boko Haram has abducted school children before, but this time the scale is unprecedented.
On Wednesday afternoon, anti-safety-net crusader Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in an attempt to make amends after he said on a radio show last month that urban poverty is caused by the lack of a work ethic in inner cities. At the meeting, Ryan admitted he didn't "know everything about poverty," and agreed to sit down with CBC members in the coming months to discuss specific solutions proposed by black lawmakers to address the needs of historically disadvantaged communities.
"The sky didn't open up," says CBC member Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.), who was at the meeting. "But there were some productive things that happened."
In a conversation with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett on March 12, Ryan said, "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."
At the time, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the CBC, called Ryan's remarks "a thinly veiled racial attack." Ryan denied the comments had anything to do with race. He said he was merely criticizing the fact that inner city men are "isolated" from economic opportunity. This isn't the first time Ryan has used racial rhetoric when talking about poverty. In a 2005 speech, he associated the "victimization class" with minorities, and in 2012, he said inner-city poverty and crime was a cultural problem.
At the Wednesday gathering, CBC members pounced on that walk-back by pointing out that if Ryan wants to prevent the isolation of inner-city men, his most recent federal budget proposal certainly doesn't reflect that; it drastically cuts social programs designed to support them. CBC members introduced Ryan to the caucus' alternative federal budget plan, which would require that 10 percent of all federal agencies' funds be directed to areas that have had a poverty rate of at least 20 percent for the last 30 years. CBC lawmakers say the plan would do much to improve socio-economic conditions in inner cities and other areas that struggle with persistent poverty.
"[Ryan] said he doesn't know everything about poverty and how to alleviate it," Moore says, and so he agreed to sit down with the CBC's budget writers to discuss the lawmakers' plan in more detail. (The CBC and Ryan have not yet pinned down a date for the upcoming meeting.)
Moore says that despite Ryan's offensive remarks a few weeks ago, the face-to-face meeting went over pretty well. "We were very cordial," she says.