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Jobless Rate At 8.9 Percent

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The economy lost another 539,000 jobs in April according to the Labor Department. That's not a good number, but it is a better number. As President Obama noted today, it's an improvement over some of the steeper losses we saw earlier this year.

President BARACK OBAMA: Step by step, we're beginning to make progress. Of course that's no solace for those who've lost their jobs.

NORRIS: In fact, many more people will lose their jobs in the coming months. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, some economists think the worst could be behind us.

FRANK LANGFITT: It's not often the disappearance of more than half a million jobs is seen as a sign of hope. But in this recession, it might be. April marked the first time in months that job losses were below 600,000. John Sylvia is chief economist at Wachovia.

Mr. JOHN SYLVIA (Chief Economist, Wachovia): The pace of job losses in the private sector have definitely moderated. I think it's a good sign that the economy is bottoming here in the second quarter.

LANGFITT: Let's be clear: that doesn't mean jobs are rebounding. Lawrence Katz teaches labor economics at Harvard.

Professor LAWRENCE KATZ (Labor Economics, Harvard): In any long run perspective, you know, the labor market is getting weaker. But in the context of the last six months, there's actually a slight bit of improvement - not that the labor market's getting better, but that it's getting worse a little more slowly.

LANGFITT: And even with that qualified statement comes some caveats. Last month, the unemployment rate jumped to 8.9 percent. Many economists think it will hit 10 percent. And the April job numbers aren't quite as good as they appear. Losses in the private sector were offset by the government's hiring of workers for next year census. But overall the pace of layoffs has ebbed a bit. John Sylvia of Wachovia says employers have already got rid of so many people, they're pausing before dumping a lot more.

Mr. SYLVIA: I think a lot of firms have simply scaled back to what they think is sustainable production.

LANGFITT: Another factor appears to be the rise in consumer spending. After drastically cutting back last year, people are opening up their wallets again. Wal-Mart sales for instance grew up 5 percent last month. Nigel Gault is an economist with IHS Global Insight, a financial analysis firm. He says consumers seem more confident these days and even if much of that confidence is just in their heads, it helps.

Mr. NIGEL GAULT (Chief Economist, IHS Global Insight): I think psychology certainly does have an influence because it influences how far the economy falls. It doesn't cure the underlying problems. That's going to take a long time.

LANGFITT: Since the recession began 17 months ago, the nation has lost 5.7 million jobs. Economists don't expect the country will start adding jobs until the end of this year or sometime next. Larry Mishel runs the Economic Policy Institute, a labor oriented think tank. He says that as people search for hopeful signs, they need to be realistic about how long it will take for jobs to rebound.

Mr. LARRY MISHEL (President, Economic Policy Institute): It's normal for people to be looking for the turnaround, for something that indicates a change in trend. What's I think important to keep your eye on is that the trend is that we've lost tremendous amount of jobs. We have a deep job hole.

LANGFITT: Its true, but there still is a little growth out there. Last month the economy added 17,000 health care jobs and President Obama hopes that government stimulus spending will either create or save many, many more.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.