Economic news continues to be slightly positive, with May's numbers a mixture of good and bad.
Unemployment ticked up one-tenth, from 7.5 percent to 7.6 percent and, oddly, that isn't as bad as it seems, because 420,000 people who had dropped out of the labor force thought that the environment had improved sufficiently to start looking for work again last month. Had those folks remained on the sidelines, the rate likely would have held at a too-high 7.5 percent. However, 101,000 of those new job-seekers didn't find work, pushing the unemployment rate up.
The influx of new job-seekers, however, moved the labor force participation rate from 63.3, a 34-year low, to 63.4.
New jobs totaled 175,000 last month, a little better than the 155,000 average of the last three months, but most were low-paying jobs that are not likely to increase consumer spending. And that number is well below the number needed monthly to make real progress in lowering the unemployment rate. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's calculator shows that more than 400,000 new jobs per month will be needed to get the unemployment rate down to the full-employment level of 5.0 percent in a year, and nearly 261,000 new jobs a month to hit 5.0 percent in two years.
Four years after the $1 trillion stimulus package that was supposed to generate a 5.1 percent jobless rate, we are still a long way from that number with unemployment 50 percent higher than that. And as long as consumer confidence remains low and business uncertainty remains high, unemployment will not change much.
Businesses that scaled back workers during the recession continue operating with fewer employees, uncertain of how their costs may increase through higher taxes and costs related to health care reform, and won't hire more workers until those uncertainties are put to rest, or until there is a surge in consumer demand. However, consumers also are nervous about spending in the current economic environment, and are waiting for stability.
Last Thursday's Labor Department numbers showed that non-farm productivity, defined as output per hour of all workers, rose at a 0.7 percent annual rate in January through March, reversing the trend in the last quarter of 2012, as the economy sputtered.
One explanation for the recent pickup is that businesses saw higher demand for products and services over the winter, and that typically leads to higher wages for workers, ultimately improving living standards. However, it might also mean that employers are getting more out of their current workforce and thus have no urgent need to hire, which does not improve the unemployment picture.
On the topic of health care reform, the public has never embraced the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare, and is even less enamored of it today, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.
Rasmussen found that only 41percent of the 1,000 likely voters that participated now hold at least a somewhat favorable opinion of the health care law, while 54 percent view it unfavorably. A tiny 15 percent view Obamacare very favorably, while 40 percent have a very unfavorable view of the law.
A slightly better rating appears in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which shows that 49 percent of Americans say they believe the Affordable Care Act is a bad idea, while just 37 percent say it is a good idea. Like the Rasmussen poll, the NBC/WSJ poll had a substantial number of participants who strongly believe Obamacare is a very bad idea, at 43 percent.
These numbers reflect an increase in unpopularity since July 2012, when 44 percent of NBC/WSJ poll respondents called it a bad idea, while 40 percent called it a good one.
Some of the reasons for this unpopularity are that while the Affordable Care Act promised to lower premiums for families, regulators decided to impose a 3.5 percent surcharge on insurance plans sold through federally run exchanges. There also is a $63 fee for every person covered by employers, and a "premium tax" that will require insurers to pay more than $100 billion over the next decade. The Joint Committee on Taxation expects insurers to simply pass this tax onto individuals and small businesses, boosting premiums another 2.5 percent.
Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office said that 7 million people will likely lose their employer coverage thanks to Obamacare — nearly twice its previous estimate. The CBO said that number could be as high as 20 million.
And in December, state insurance commissioners warned Obama administration officials that the law's market regulations would likely cause "rate shocks," particularly for younger, healthier people forced by Obamacare to subsidize premiums for those who are older and sicker.
Combined with the other liberal policies that have caused the recovery to stall for four years, the unpopular federal takeover of health care deepens uncertainty for businesses and raises insurance and health costs for consumers. Then there is Obamacare's planned involvement of the IRS.
A stagnant recovery and pain and suffering are what happens when the narrow ideological dreams of the ruling elite take precedence over addressing the real needs of Americans.