Two ways to view America's 9 percent jobless rate

Official unemployment figures do not measure the country's jobless problems accurately, say the AFL-CIO at one extreme and conservatives at the other.

That is about the only thing Lane Kirkland, president of the labor federation , and conservatives agree on when they discuss unemployment.

The AFL-CIO contends that the official figures, high as they are, underestimate the jobless problem. The federation says that some 17 million Americans are suffering from the impact of the recession -- nearly 10 million officially unemployed as the US jobless rate stands at 9 percent, another 1.3 million too discouraged to look for jobs, and nearly 6 million working part-time because they cannot find full-time jobs.

Conservatives, such as William Buckley, agree that unemployment at any level is to be deplored, but they disagree with the way the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) measures the number of jobless. They argue that the official rate lacks perspective and that the high jobless rate is caused in large part by the fact that more want to work than ever before -- or perhaps are being forced into the job market by inflation.

As Mr. Buckley put it in a recent newspaper column, when unemployment rose by 280,000 in March, according to BLS, the number of people working dropped only 98 ,000. Conservatives say the BLS's methods of computing unemployment, long questioned by business, accounted for the rise from 8.8 percent in February to 9 percent last month.

Business often criticizes the BLS for basing its unemployment survey and computations on a five-year projection basis that confuses the actual employment-unemployment situation at any time.

The BLS defends its estimates as scientific and as a sound basis for a month-to-month comparison. It concedes that the influx of newcomers into the job market has affected its figures, but it says it's incorrect to say that new job seekers are pushing the unemployment rate up.

''Job losers have accounted for nearly all the increase in unemployment since the recession began and in March comprised over 57 percent of the unemployed,'' says the BLS. It adds that all of the increase in March was among job losers, most of whom were let go permanently.

The argument over real unemployment is political. To labor, the high rate is a consequence of what it terms ''the Reagan administration's misguided economic adventures.'' It is ''a signal to the White House that it is time to reverse its course,'' Mr. Kirkland insists.

Conservatives, while acknowledging the seriousness of 10 million unemployed, look at the strength in overall employment as an indication that current economic policies should be continued. Some 57 percent of all working-age Americans are at work. While jobs are not being created for those entering the job market as fast as economists would like, they are being created.

The White House and Republicans are concerned not only about the 9 percent level of unemployment in March but also by projections that indicate that the rate will go higher -- making it a Republican political hazard in a congressional election year.

The BLS has told the White House and Congress that if the unemployment rate behaves as it has in past recessions, it will continue to rise into the summer and fall. Some economists predict unemployment will reach at least 10 percent before it peaks.

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