How Economists Define and Compute Unemployment Rate

Criticisms of Measuring Unemployment

There are always complications in measuring the number of unemployed. For example, what about people who do not have jobs and would be available to work, but are discouraged by the lack of available jobs in their area and stopped looking? Such people, and their families, may be suffering the pains of unemployment. However, the survey counts them as out of the labor force because they are not actively looking for work. Other people may tell the Census Bureau that they are ready to work and looking for a job but, truly, they are not that eager to work and are not looking very hard at all. They are counted as unemployed, although they might more accurately be classified as out of the labor force. Still other people may have a job, perhaps doing something like yard work, child care, or cleaning houses, but are not reporting the income earned to the tax authorities. They may report being unemployed, when they actually are working.

Although the unemployment rate gets most of the public and media attention, economic researchers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics publish a wide array of surveys and reports that try to measure these kinds of issues and to develop a more nuanced and complete view of the labor market. It is not exactly a hot news flash that economic statistics are imperfect. Even imperfect measures like the unemployment rate, however, can still be quite informative, when interpreted knowledgeably and sensibly.

Click here to learn more about the CPS and to read frequently asked questions about employment and labor.

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