Nation’s Unemployment Rate Drops Below 9%

The national unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent in February, as employers added 192,000 jobs to their payrolls, according to figures released Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor. The rate is down from 9.0 percent in January and 9.4 percent as recently as December.

The Labor Department described the latest numbers as “little changed,” noting that the number of unemployed persons – 13.7 million – was reported as virtually the same as in the previous month. Of these, 43.9 percent had been jobless for 27 weeks or more, essentially the same as in the month prior.

In February, the labor force participation rate was unchanged at 64.2 percent, although January’s figures were revised upward to reflect a net gain of 63,000 jobs instead of the 36,000 initially reported. December’s job growth was also adjusted upward, from 121,000 net jobs to 152,000.

“Most measures from the survey of households showed little movement in February,” said Keith Hall, commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the 192,000 jobs that were added in February represented the largest monthly net gain since mid-2010 when the numbers included temporary Census hiring, signaling that the economy is showing signs of strengthening.

Hall says from its recent low point in February of last year, payroll employment has increased by 1.3 million. But as Catherine Rampell with the New York Times points out, since the downturn began in December 2007, the economy has shed, on net, 7.5 million jobs.

If the United States adds 200,000 jobs a month from here on out, Rampell explained, it will take more than three years for the economy to return to pre-recession employment levels.

February’s job growth came close to analysts’ expectations. The consensus among economists polled by Bloomberg was that the report would show 196,000 new jobs last month.

“The 192,000 increase in US non-farm payrolls in February is healthy enough, particularly when we take into account the upward revisions to the preceding two months,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist for the international research firm Capital Economics.

“Over the next few months, we expect monthly payroll gains to accelerate a little from the current underlying pace of about 135,000 a month, moving into the 150,000 to 200,000 range. However, we expect the unemployment rate to decline only gradually from here,” Ashworth said.

Without question, unemployment levels are now closely tied to the mortgage industry’s level of delinquencies. To address this indisputable link, Congress established the Emergency Mortgage Relief Fund when it enacted the Dodd-Frank Reform Act last summer.

The program provides homeowners who’ve lost their jobs with a declining balance, deferred payment “bridge loan” of up to $50,000 to cover past due mortgage expenses, plus up to 24 months of monthly mortgage payments while the borrower searches for new employment.

The House Financial Services Committee voted Thursday to terminate the emergency program, citing it as one of four federal foreclosure mitigation programs that “aren’t working.” The bill to end the program now moves to the full House for consideration. If passed by House lawmakers, it would also need to clear the Senate.

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