The government’s final jobs report before Election Day showed the U.S. unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent while the economy added a slightly better-than-expected 171,000 jobs last month.
The numbers left President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney with little new ammunition on the jobs front in their final days of fighting for the presidency.
Issues surrounding jobs and the economy have dominated the presidential campaign. Some local observers said Friday’s report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is unlikely to sway a significant number of voters either way because the majority of voters have already factored labor market conditions into their choice for president and the jobs report held no dramatic news.
“I would say that the campaigns have mostly entered a new phase; the turnout phase,” said Bryan Marshall, a political science professor at Miami University. “My view is that although the jobs number may have the potential to turn a few of the last fence-sitters, it will more likely be important as a turnout driver. Each respective campaign may use it as one last reminder to encourage their supporters to get to the polls.”
While campaigning in Ohio on Friday, both men attempted to leverage the jobs report to their advantage: Romney cast the report as further evidence the economy has stalled and that unemployment will remain high unless voters decide to change course and vote for him. Meanwhile, Obama said the jobs report showed the economy is moving in the right direction and encouraged voters to stay the course by supporting his re-election.
Politics aside, the October jobs numbers were consistent with a slow-to-moderately growing economy that has seen a pick-up in home sales, spending and consumer confidence. It reached its highest level in four years last month, largely because people have become more optimistic about the job market, The Conference Board reported earlier this week.
U.S. employers added about 50,000 more jobs last month than the consensus forecast of most economists, and job growth in the previous two months was revised up by 84,000 jobs, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
In Ohio the labor market is recovering even faster. Unemployment in Ohio was nearly a full percentage point below the national rate at 7 percent in September, and the 88,000 jobs added in the first nine months of the year ranked the Buckeye State No. 4 in the country for job growth, based on government figures.
The U.S. economy has added 1.3 million total non-farm jobs so far this year at an average monthly gain of 157,000, slightly ahead of the average monthly gain of 153,000 in 2011, according to the BLS.
“We’ve had several surprises on the upside in the payroll number, and the payroll number is the number we really need to be paying attention to rather than the unemployment rate,” said Bill LaFayette, a Columbus-based labor economist. “When those numbers are strengthening that really is an indication that things are getting better.”
Even the increase in the unemployment rate last month from 7.8 percent can be interpreted as a good sign for the economy because it was driven largely by a 578,000 increase in the size of the labor force - the biggest increase since May.
“That would imply that discouraged workers are feeling less discouraged and are starting to trickle back into the labor force, and that’s a very good sign,” said LaFayette.
Still, unemployment remains painfully high and the recent tide of rising employment hasn’t lifted all boats. The unemployment rate for African Americans and young adults age 18-24, edged up to 14.3 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively. And the number of long-term unemployed, or those jobless for 27 weeks or more, remained at an historically high 40.6 percent of all unemployed workers, or about 5 million.
Those figures reinforce the argument that the “status quo isn’t getting the job done,” said Greg Lawson, a policy analyst with The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a Columbus-based think-tank.
“We tend to clap our hands and jump up and down when we see job growth numbers, but the fundamentals show we are still in a recovery and job growth is clearly not fast enough to take care of the bloodletting that we had coming out of the Great Recession,” Lawson said. “There’s still an awful lot of underutilized talent out there that just isn’t able to find anything.”