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Jobs Report: Time to Call It a Comeback

More jobs in health care = happy nurses. Photo: Corbis

The bullet-point takeaway from today’s jobs report (171,000 new jobs, unemployment essentially unchanged at 7.9 percent) is something like: good numbers, great revisions, and an overall trend line headed in the right direction.

Back in early September, when the August jobs report came out, I panicked. “The Great Recession Is Still Here,” I wrote, swayed by the fact that the morning’s non-farm payroll report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics had showed only 96,000 new jobs, well below what analysts had expected. “All the major trends,” I wrote, “are moving in the wrong direction.”

But as the revisions in today’s monthly report showed, the real August numbers were actually better than expectations, at a healthy 192,000 jobs. September’s numbers were revised up by 34,000 jobs, too. In the scramble to make sense of the monthly report, I, like many columnists and reporters (and not like many level-headed economists, who typically know better), fell prey to the margin of error and read into the lackluster initial numbers a macro analysis that the economic recovery had stalled.

Today’s report came with a side of crow for all of us Chicken Littles, because it showed, nearly unmistakably, that we’re in a slow, steady recovery — one that could and should be faster and less mistakable, but one with solid positive trajectory nonetheless. Mitt Romney’s campaign is saying that the report showed an economy at “a virtual standstill,” but they have to say that. In fact, nothing about today’s report says “stalled” except the headline unemployment rate, which is not as meaningful as what’s going on under the hood.

Here are some of the many things to like in today’s report: The labor force rose by 578,000, and the participation rate (the ratio of people actively employed or looking for jobs to overall eligible population) nudged up, too. The establishment survey was good, and growth in high-paying industries like health care and business services was solid. There was a gain of 13,000 jobs in “services to buildings and dwellings,” which may mean that, after years of putting it off, homeowners and landlords are finally feeling confident enough in the recovery to get their repairs done.

Today’s numbers aren’t going to change the election on Tuesday, but that’s a good thing. As revisions have shown us (read: me) time and time again, it’s a bad idea to put excessive faith in one month’s numbers.

But the numbers do describe, in the clearest terms we’ve seen yet, that our unemployment crisis is on the mend. And unless you’re a partisan hack for whom political momentum is more important than the alleviation of human misery, that’s a good thing.

Jobs Report: Call It a Comeback