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Latest Jobless Rate Forecast To Hold Steady

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. More signs today of a slow, slow economic recovery. The Labor Department reports the economy added 157,000 new jobs last month. The unemployment rate ticked up slightly, to 7.9 percent. To tell us what's behind these numbers, we're joined by NPR business correspondent Yuki Noguchi, and also our White House correspondent, Scott Horsley. Good morning to both of you.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, let's start with you, Yuki - 157,000 new jobs. I mean is this good news or is it a disappointment or more of the same?

BYLINE: Well, it's not surprising. I mean I don't think there's much in the way of anything in this particular report that isn't what investors expected. Maybe what's more interesting is the revision, so Labor Department is now saying that in November and December job numbers, job growth was better than previously reported - 127,000 more jobs added during that time. And what's interesting about that is that it means job growth was pretty good, even at the same time that the economy was supposedly contracting.

So we have job growth that's occurring in spite of the fact that there's no economic growth.

MONTAGNE: Well, interesting, but maybe a little confusing. How can that happen?

BYLINE: Well, you know, in fairness the economic growth numbers maybe be a little misleading. The third quarter numbers were inflated and the fourth quarter numbers may be understated. So if you take the average, the longer view, the numbers - it could be more consistent than the growth numbers suggest, and so therefore you're seeing job numbers coming in in line with what they did last month.

Also, as they do every year, the Labor Department revises their numbers in January for the whole of 2012. It's saying that they understated job growth last year by 422,000. Now, that sounds like a lot, but averaged over the whole year it means that average job growth was 181,000 per month, instead of about 150,000. So it suggests that the whole year was a little bit better.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, 30,000 extra a month than we thought were there. Well, Scott, let's turn to you. The president said in his inauguration speech last week that the economic recovery has begun. But the unemployment number seems to be moving in the wrong direction. It's up by just a small amount, 7.8 to 7.9, but are there political implications for this?

HORSLEY: Well, potentially. I mean it's not the trend you want to see. The household survey that's used to calculate that unemployment rate actually showed more people dropping out of the labor force in January than finding jobs. So even though the economy continues to add jobs, it added fewer in December than it did in November, and fewer still in January.

Now, this data is noisy, and as least we've heard, it's subject to some big revisions, but it's not the trend line that you'd like to see. Now, on the plus side for the administration, the president likes to talk about the six million private sector jobs that have been added over the last three years - more than two million in 2012. But as we saw earlier this week, when it was reported that the economy shrank in the fourth quarter, government cutbacks continue to be a drag on the economy. Even as, for example, construction is rebounding, we saw 9,000 government jobs lost in January, more than half of those at the federal level, and government at all levels has shed more than half a million jobs over the last three years.

MONTAGNE: And we could be looking at more government cuts in the months to come, right?

HORSLEY: That's right. We're staring at automatic spending cuts. They were postponed in January but they're still due to take effect in March unless lawmakers agree to do something different. And here you see a real philosophical divide between the two parties in Washington. Congressional Republicans insist the government has to cut spending to get control of its deficit. The administration says those Congressional Republicans are one of the biggest headwinds facing the economy.

MONTAGNE: And Yuki, just back to you, just briefly. This is a recession characterized by long-term unemployment. Over the whole of last year, how much of the picture has changed?

BYLINE: Marginally better. Still bad. But not getting worse. So 12 million people remain unemployed in this country. Nearly 40 percent of them have been jobless now for at least six months. You know, those numbers are down slightly. And they're also staying unemployed on average for slightly less than they did before. But you know, one of the concerns economists have is that the percentage of working age people who have jobs in this country stayed virtually unchanged, at a historically low level.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much. NPR business correspondent Yuki Noguchi and White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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