- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

The nation’s unemployment rate surged to 8.5 percent last month, the highest since 1983, as the free fall in the job market produced another 663,000 job losses, the Labor Department reported Friday morning.

The string of massive job losses totaling more than a half million a month since November is the worst in U.S. history. Since the start of the recession in December 2007, employers have slashed 5.1 million jobs, with two thirds of that since the credit crisis struck in October.

January was the single worst month, with a revised job loss of 741,000, the worst since 1949, the department said. The job losses have been in virtually every sector of the economy, led by a hemorrhaging of jobs in construction and manufacturing, which have both lost more than a million jobs in the recession.

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Last month, governments at all levels for the first time joined the list of employers slashing jobs. While the 5,000 slump in government jobs was small in comparison to 161,000 manufacturing layoffs, it nevertheless was a dark development as the government had been a last refuge for job seekers. A massive $787 billion stimulus bill passed in February was aimed in part at maintaining government jobs in such areas as education and law enforcement.

In March, the only sector in the U.S. economy that continued to produce jobs was health care, where employment rose by 14,000 — half the rate seen last year.

“Increasingly the economic slowdown looks more like a depression than a recession,’” said Peter Morici, economics professor at the University of Maryland. “The economy is shifting to permanently lower levels of production and employment.”

While the jump in the unemployment rate to 8.5 percent from 8.1 percent in February was stunning, it probably under-counts the number of jobless people, he said. Including discouraged adults who have left the labor force and part-time workers who would prefer to work full time, the real unemployment rate is closer to 16.7 percent, he said.

With virtually no effect seen as yet from the stimulus bill, the best hope is that the economy will reach a point on its own where enough jobs have been shed to get rid of excess capacity and employment will plateau at a lower level, Mr. Morici said. Most economists expect the economy to continue to shrink for much of the year, however.

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