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FRIDAY'S REPORT that the U.S. jobless rate for September had fallen to 7.8 percent means little in itself--the Labor Department announcement comes with enough asterisks to fill a steamer trunk--but numbers sometimes carry an import beyond themselves. In great part, the economy is psychology, and the breaching of the 8-percent barrier, for the first time since Barack Obama's swearing-in as president, may combine with other favorable data to give this stumbling economy a steadier gait.
Leading indicators of last month's 0.3 unemployment-rate gain include an upturn in car sales, which recently posted their strongest showing since March 2008; a seven-year high in home prices; and a rise in chain-store buying. These increases dovetail with recent reports of stronger consumer confidence. A late-September Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found 18 percent more Americans believing the economy was improving than not. Because 70 percent of the U.S. economy is based on consumer spending, these are hopeful signs heading into November and the Christmas shopping season.
Some glad tidings for working America also materialized. Anemic job-gain numbers for both July and August were revised, on fuller data, to ruddier sums: The third quarter saw creation of 437,000 net jobs (assuming a reliable September report). That's hardly a cure for what ails us--12 million Americans officially jobless with another 10 million stuck in part-time, no-benefits work--but it's something. At least private-sector workers are working more hours than in August, while labor-force participation, which had fallen steadily this year as frustrated job seekers left the labor market, stabilized. Stemming this dropout rate is another hint that perhaps the worst of the Great Recession/Pipsqueak Recovery is past.
TURNING THE KNOB
Alas, it's also true that focusing the microscope on some of these hopeful numbers and trends reveals a swarm of dystrophic asterisks:
* If September's 114,000 new-jobs datum holds up, it would represent 28,000 fewer jobs than were created in August and 67,000 fewer than in July.