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Unemployment rate: How many Americans are really unemployed?

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In this file photo, a construction worker works on the framework for a single family home currently under construction in Los Angeles.

Fred Prouser/Reuters/File

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3. Employed as percent of population: Up slightly in April to 58.6 percent

This ratio sets aside all the questions about whether an unemployed person deserves to be counted as in the labor force, and whether he or she is actively filling out job applications, etc.
 
It's simply a measure of what percentage of all people, age 16 and over, are working. That makes the number useful, some economists say, as an alternative way to chart the economy's progress. If a terrible economy is getting better, this gauge should rise as more people find jobs.
 
The employment-to-population ratio hit its low point for the current cycle well after the recession officially ended: at 58.1 percent in July of 2011.
 
A sobering contrast: The pre-recession high point for this number was 63.4 percent at the end of 2006, and it was still higher (64.7 percent in April 2000) near the start of that decade.
 
Note that this indicator can be affected by long-term shifts as well as the economy's up-and-down cycles. For five decades after World War II, the rising percentage of women in the labor force helped to push the nation's employment-to-population ratio generally up, although it also fluctuated with cycles in the economy.
 
Economist Alan Krueger wrote a Bloomberg News column singing the praises of this measure, since the unemployment rate can be muddied by factors pushing people in or out of the official labor force.

If extended jobless benefits run out, for example, some people might stop looking for work because they A) have been looking without success and B) no longer need to keep looking in order to qualify for benefits. Yet they would still love to have jobs.
 
"Instead of focusing on the unemployment rate, it may be better to look at the employment-to-population ratio," wrote Mr. Krueger, who now chairs President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. "This rate isn’t affected by whether someone is counted as in or out of the labor force."
 

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