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U.S. Unemployment at 15-Year High


There is stunning news this morning about the jobs market. The Labor Department says the U.S. economy lost more than a half-million jobs in November. It was the steepest monthly drop since 1974. NPR's Jim Zarroli joins us now to talk about this. And Jim, you know, after you catch your breath, would you like to tell us if there was one particular part of the economy, I mean, like one industry that saw a huge number of job losses?

JIM ZARROLI: No, not really. I mean, every sector of the jobs market except health care just took a beating - manufacturing, construction, leisure and hospitality, you know, the retail sector, which has just been doing terribly. You know, a lot of big companies came out this week with really dismal sales figures from November. It lost 91,000 jobs, that's a huge drop. So, this isn't the kind of drop that only affects a few corners of the economy. There aren't a lot of pockets of strength.

MONTAGNE: And where does this leave the national unemployment rate?

ZARROLI: It is 6.7 percent. It was 6.5 percent. And you know, this week, the private research group the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that the recession began exactly a year ago in December 2007, so we can date this downturn from then. And since then, since the recession began, the unemployment rate has gone from 5 to now 6.7 percent.

MONTAGNE: Now, the government also raised its estimates for job losses in September and October. Adding it all up, how many jobs have been lost so far this year?

ZARROLI: Well, the Labor Department says the number of jobs lost since December 2007, since the recession began, is 2.7 million. And those numbers don't measure people who are out of work but have simply stopped looking for jobs, the discouraged workers. And a lot of economists will tell you that if you include them as well, the jobs picture is a lot worse. It just really shows the toll that the housing downturn, and the financial market crisis, the credit crunch have taken on the economy. It has just really stopped a lot of employers in their tracks. They're cutting jobs, they're not filling jobs, and there doesn't seem to be any sign that this is going to end. A lot of economists are now assuming that 2009 is going to be a pretty gloomy year.

MONTAGNE: And could these numbers change Congress' response, which has been not so great, to the U.S. auto executives who are in Washington asking for federal loans?

ZARROLI: Well, you know, it could. I mean, consider this. One of the reasons retail was down so much was that auto dealers cut 24,000 jobs. That's a really big number for a sector that size. We're just seeing auto dealers shut down. It just underscores how wide an impact the auto industry has on the economy. It's not just the people who work in the auto factories. It's much more than that. Now, there may be, you know, good reasons for not liking the bailout of the auto industry, but the fact is that this is going to affect a lot of people, and Congress is going to have to take that into account.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, how might this affect what President-elect Obama does when he comes into office next month?

ZARROLI: Well, it really changes the economic climate that he's going to have to operate in. He's been talking about a large stimulus plan that would provide 2 and a half million new jobs, he says, mainly by funneling money in the states - to the states. This will just make it politically easier to do that and put pressure on federal officials to act quickly.

MONTAGNE: Jim, thanks very much.

ZARROLI: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jim Zarroli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.