Jobless Claims Rise, But Is the Economy Doing Better Than You Think?

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With the release of the Department of Labor’s May Employment Situation Report, another month of labor market progress was put on display. The data tell the story of an economy and a labor market that are healing, yet there was also evidence of deep scars.

The jobs report showed that U.S. employers expanded payrolls by 217,000 jobs last month, a slightly greater gain than the average of 214,000 jobs added per month in 2014. May marked the fourth consecutive month in which job creation surpassed 200,000, an important benchmark for the health of the economy. Now, “people will start accepting that the labor market is working better than people think it is,” IHS Global Insight chief U.S. economist Doug Handler told The Washington Post. The labor market has indeed achieved an important goal: May’s employment gains mean the jobs lost during the recession have been recaptured, leaving employment at an all-time high of 138.4 million.

Of course, in the five years of the recovery, the U.S. population has grown, and so the percentage of Americans that are employed remains smaller than before the recession began. According to an analysis conducted by the liberal Economic Policy Institute, more than 7.1 million jobs need to be created to fill that gap. That indicates to Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierholz that the United States is “far, far from healthy labor market conditions.” The labor force participation rate remains low by historical standards, long-term unemployment is still elevated, and many workers are underemployed.

But surveys of worker confidence, May hiring numbers, jobless claims figures, and the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey indicate that progress is being made in the labor market.