What to Do About the January Jobs Report

The jobs report for January is in, and nobody is very happy about it.

Our own survey of the headlines of major news outlets told the story. The government’s job numbers were described as “Disappointing,” “Weak,” “Surprisingly Weak,” and “Not What the White House Wanted.”

Not what we wanted, either.

There is no doubt that the American workforce is still hurting. Recovery has not matched hopes or expectations, not in the long run nor in the short. January seemed like a bleak repetition of December; “more of the same,” as one analyst put it. Only 113,000 jobs were added in January, less than the average monthly gain of 194,000 in 2013. In December, the increase was 75,000. Furthermore, job gains have averaged only 154,000 the past three months, down from 201,000 in the preceding three months.

These numbers again raise the question: What is to be done?

Before we propose any specific action that can be taken by government, industry or private citizens, we suggest that the first thing to do is to put the jobs report — and the reports on the job report — in perspective.

The word disappointing always suggests some expectation that was unfulfilled. Who was disappointed here? We all were. True. But before this pall of unfulfilled expectations fell upon us all, it fell upon the experts. They were already warning us of a disappointing jobs report days before it was released last Friday. And in that, at least, they were not disappointed.

The headline writers were disappointed, too — no doubt taking their cue from the experts, who thoughtfully prepared them for the let-down.

As a result, the rest of us, who get our information from these sources, were also left feeling less up-and-at-’em than we may have felt on Thursday.

But how realistic all this is, is questionable. First of all, these unemployment figures are merely estimates of a vast, complex and ever-changing situation that is difficult to measure. They typically undergo significant revision in the weeks following their release, and often get revised upward. The employment numbers were revised up only 1,000 for December; but in November the payroll number was revised up more sharply from 241,000 to 274,000.

Then, too, as is well known to economists, January reports are perennially subject to the largest seasonal adjustment factor of any month. Weather conditions have a lot to do with that. The snowstorms that blanket large swathes of the country not only close roads and schools but businesses, too, burying a great deal of economic activity.

But even if these latest estimates turn out to need no revision at all, they only provide us with a picture of the past. They are about last month. They do not determine this month or the next.

A USA Today survey of 40 economists found that, unfazed by the January figures, they are looking forward to accelerating growth, reaching a solid 2.8 percent rate for the year. That growth rate would lead to reduced unemployment.

For those who are out of work, it is important to keep these things in mind. It’s so easy to become disappointed and discouraged, especially when that’s the message in every headline. But the number of people in the United States who were employed or unemployed in January is, in a real sense, irrelevant to the jobseeker in February. There may well be new opportunities in the coming weeks, not to mention that better weather is just around the corner.

By that we don’t mean to say that all we have to do is wait for spring. There is much that can be done in the meantime.

The Obama administration, to its credit, has launched an initiative to help the four million Americans who are categorized as long-term unemployed. While short-term unemployment has reportedly returned to historical norms, those who have been seeking jobs for longer periods continue to suffer.

President Obama announced that the Labor Department will direct $150 million to partnerships that help workers develop needed skills. He’s enlisted the support of the chief executives of numerous leading corporations including Motorola, Deloitte, BlackRock, Morgan Stanley, Boeing, Bank of America, Marriott International, and Walgreens.

Clearly, this initiative is no panacea. There is much more to be done — like extending the long-term unemployment benefits for those who, through no fault of their own, continue to lack employment. But in the meantime, it does offer more reason for hope to those who are suffering the most from the nation’s economic stagnation.

In our own communities, too, there is more to do. You don’t have to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to help expand work opportunities. Being a “shadchan” for jobs is but one possibility. The key is in looking for ways to help.

As the Chofetz Chaim taught, the Torah defines performing kindness as ahavas chessed, the love of chessed. That means not waiting for an opportunity for chessed to come to us, but to seek it out, to think of ways to help and to try them out.

If enough of us do that, it will make a difference. We won’t be disappointed.