Good News Today, But Not Quite as Good as You Think

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 10:56 AM EST

The unemployment rate fell last month to 8.6%. Hooray! But that seems odd since the country added only 120,000 new jobs, which should be just barely enough for us to keep treading water. Phil Izzo tells us what happened:

In October, the household survey showed the number of people unemployed fell by 594,000, but the labor force — the number of people working or looking for work — fell by a little more than half that amount. That means that though the number of employed people rose, a large group just stopped looking for work. That could be due to discouragement of the long-term unemployed or by choice over retirement or child care. So the decline in the unemployment rate to 8.6% was about half due to people finding jobs and half people dropping out.

There's enough slop in the difference between the establishment survey (which gives us the number of new jobs) and the household survey (which gives us the unemployment number) that there's a fair degree of uncertainty here. But the establishment survey is bigger and generally more accurate, and it just doesn't support the idea that there's been a huge uptick in employment. So take this as good news, but probably not quite as good as the headline number suggests.