How Economists Define and Compute Unemployment Rate

Newspaper or television reports typically describe unemployment as a percentage or a rate. A recent report might have said, for example, from August 2009 to November 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate rose from 9.7% to 10.0%, but by June 2010, it had fallen to 9.5%. At a glance, the changes between the percentages may seem small. However, remember that the U.S. economy has about 160 million adults (as of the beginning of 2017) who either have jobs or are looking for them. A rise or fall of just 0.1% in the unemployment rate of 160 million potential workers translates into 160,000 people, which is roughly the total population of a city like Syracuse, New York, Brownsville, Texas, or Pasadena, California. Large rises in the unemployment rate mean large numbers of job losses. In November 2009, at the peak of the recession, about 15 million people were out of work. Even with the unemployment rate now at 4.8% as of January 2017, about 7.6 million people who would like to have jobs are out of work.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks and reports all data related to unemployment.

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