Erika Eichelberger

Erika Eichelberger

Reporter

Erika Eichelberger is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She has also written for The NationThe Brooklyn Rail, and TomDispatch. Email her at eeichelberger [at] motherjones [dot] com. 

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April Had the Lowest Jobless Rate Since Obama Took Office

| Fri May 2, 2014 11:52 AM EDT

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.

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New York Stock Exchange Broke Its Own Rules, SEC Says

| Thu May 1, 2014 4:57 PM EDT
New York Stock Exchange.

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.

After Offensive Comments, Paul Ryan Will Let Black Lawmakers School Him on Poverty

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 5:23 PM EDT

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.

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