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How Discouraged Are the Marginally Attached?
Of the many statistical barometers of the U.S. economy that we monitor here at the Atlanta Fed, there are few that we await more eagerly than the monthly report on employment conditions. The May 2014 edition arrives this week and, like many others, we will be more interested in the underlying details than in the headline job growth or unemployment numbers.
One of those underlying details—the state of the pool of “discouraged” workers (or, maybe more precisely, potential workers)—garnered special attention lately in the wake of the relatively dramatic decline in the ranks of the official labor force, a decline depicted in the April employment survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That attention included some notable commentary from Federal Reserve officials.
Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley, for example, recently suggested that a sizeable part of the decline in labor force participation since 2007 can be tied to discouraged workers exiting the workforce. This suggestion follows related comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen in her press conference following the March meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee:
So I have talked in the past about indicators I like to watch or I think that are relevant in assessing the labor market. In addition to the standard unemployment rate, I certainly look at broader measures of unemployment… Of course, I watch discouraged and marginally attached workers… it may be that as the economy begins to strengthen, we could see labor force participation flatten out for a time as discouraged workers start moving back into the labor market. And so that's something I'm watching closely.
What may not be fully appreciated by those not steeped in the details of the employment statistics is that discouraged workers are actually a subset of “marginally attached” workers. Among the marginally attached—individuals who have actively sought employment within the most recent 12-month period but not during the most recent month—are indeed those who report that they are out of the labor force because they are discouraged. But the marginally attached also include those who have not recently sought work because of family responsibilities, school attendance, poor health, or other reasons.
In fact, most of the marginally attached are not classified (via self-reporting) as discouraged (see the chart):
At the St. Louis Fed, B. Ravikumar and Lin Shao recently published a report containing some detailed analysis of discouraged workers and their relationship to the labor force and the unemployment rate. As Ravikumar and Shao note,
Since discouraged workers are not actively searching for a job, they are considered nonparticipants in the labor market—that is, they are neither counted as unemployed nor included in the labor force.
More importantly, the authors point out that they tend to reenter the labor force at relatively high rates:
Since December 2007, on average, roughly 40 percent of discouraged workers reenter the labor force every month.
Therefore, it seems appropriate to count some fraction of the jobless population designated as discouraged (and out of the labor force) as among the officially unemployed.
We believe this logic should be extended to the entire group of marginally attached. As we've pointed out in the past, the marginally attached group as a whole also has a roughly 40 percent transition rate into the labor force. Even though more of the marginally attached are discouraged today than before the recession, the changing distribution has not affected the overall transition rate of the marginally attached into the labor force.
In fact, in terms of the propensity to flow into employment or officially measured unemployment, there is little to distinguish the discouraged from those who are marginally attached but who have other reasons for not recently seeking a job (see the chart):
What we take from these data is that, as a first pass, when we are talking about discouraged workers' attachment to the labor market, we are talking more generally about the marginally attached. And vice versa. Any differences in the demographic characteristics between discouraged and nondiscouraged marginally attached workers do not seem to materially affect their relative labor market attachment and ability to find work.
Sometimes labels matter. But in the case of discouraged marginally attached workers versus the nondiscouraged marginally attached workers—not so much.
By Dave Altig, executive vice president and research director,
John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist, and
Ellyn Terry, a senior economic analyst, all of the Atlanta Fed's research department
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