Behind the Lower Unemployment Rates
The statistics we hear about don't give a full picture on jobs. That's good news and bad news.
How you interpret the numbers -- and place credit or blame for the economy -- may shape your vote. In January 2008, under President George W. Bush, the unemployment rate was 5 percent. But by the time he left office in January 2009 and President Obama took the nation's helm, the unemployment rate was up to 7.8 percent.
It rose as high as 10 percent by October 2009 and -- again, due partly to a mix of real job creation and discouraged workers dropping off the rolls -- has now dropped to 8.1 percent. It may seem fussy to spend this much time on numbers, but some political analysts argue that the president cannot win re-election with an unemployment rate over 8 percent.
Those are the numbers, but we can't forget that each person has the ability to transform his or her own life. Some of the best come-from-behind stories in this labor market show the importance of emotional resilience.
For a 2010 radio special, I interviewed Hazel Shaw, a 58-year-old Arizona woman with a master's degree in public administration and a 20-year work history. After leaving her job to care for her dying father in North Carolina, she returned to find that the job market had dried up. Shaw had to move into a shelter after spending down her retirement savings. But the same qualities that made her a good human resources employee for most of her career ended up getting her a job as a clerk at the same homeless shelter where she'd lived.
Since then I've heard similar stories, including a man who was hired after giving out free job advice while he waited in line to receive groceries at a New York food pantry. His generosity of spirit and willingness to help others -- even while he himself was unemployed and without benefits -- ultimately reconnected him to the world of work.
But a lot of people don't have the mix of fortitude and luck that it takes to find a job in this economy. And one of the questions that will be answered in the 2012 election is whether those buffeted and battered by the economy will choose President Obama or challenger Mitt Romney -- or simply vote for no one at all.
Farai Chideya is an award-winning author and journalist and a spring 2012 fellow at Harvard's Institute of Politics. Follow her on Twitter.