President Biden on Friday glossed over weak job growth in December that marked the worst month for hiring in a year, instead focusing on a surprise decline in the nation’s unemployment rate.
The Labor Department reported Friday morning that private businesses and other employers added just 199,000 new jobs in December, well below the 400,000 gain forecast by Refinitiv economists – a troubling sign that hiring slowed even before the highly contagious omicron variant began rapidly spreading across the nation.
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But other aspects of the report painted a brighter outlook. The unemployment rate unexpectedly plunged to 3.9% from 4.2%, indicating that more Americans found jobs last month than the report suggested, and average hourly earnings rose 0.6% for the month. But the labor force participation rate remained unchanged for the month at 61.9%.
Biden never mentioned the headline jobs number during his remarks, and chose to tout the better-than-expected drop in the unemployment rate.
“It’s a historic day for our economic recovery,” Biden said in brief remarks from the White House. “Today’s national unemployment rate fell below 4% to 3.9%, the sharpest one-year drop in unemployment in United States history … Years faster than experts said we’d be able to do it, and we have added 6.4 million new jobs since January of last year.”
The divergence in the unemployment rate and the lackluster December jobs figure reflects two different surveys the Labor Department conducts to put together the final jobs report.
The unemployment rate is calculated from a survey of households, which found that more people reported that they had found a job last month. A separate survey of employers (which includes about 150,000 larger businesses and government agencies) found that just 199,000 jobs were added last month.
In all, the economy gained about 6.4 million jobs over the duration of 2021, or an average of 537,000 per month – more than in any year on record. But the nation remains 3.6 million jobs short of pre-pandemic levels in February 2020.
“We brought down the poverty rate, went from 20 million people on unemployment rolls to under 2 million on the unemployment rolls today,” Biden said. “America is back to work.”
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The president also took a victory lap on rising wages, even though the increased pay has played at least some role in the hottest inflation in four decades. He dismissed critics who say the White House is overlooking the link between higher wages and rising inflation, slamming the connection as “malarkey.”
“This is the economy I promised and hoped for, for the American people,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “Where the biggest benefits go to the people who work the hardest and who are more often left behind. The people who have been ignored before. The people who just want a decent chance to build a decent life for their families.”
Still, rising prices have fueled a rapid decline of Biden’s approval ratings, which have fallen to record lows in recent months. The government reported last month that prices for consumer goods were at the highest level since 1982, with the cost of everything from gasoline to groceries to cars soaring.