The Labor Department’s participation-rate figures tell the story, but they don’t really convey what it means in human terms. For that, it’s useful to do a bit of back-of-the-envelope arithmetic and convert them into an estimate of the number of workers who have gone “missing” from the labor force, for whatever reason. Early last year, based on a report from the Congressional Budget Office, I did that exercise and came up with a figure of roughly six million, which isn’t much short of the entire population of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area.
Based on the latest job figures, six million might even be an underestimate of the number of missing workers. In December, 2007, the participation rate was sixty-six per cent, more than three percentage points above the current figure of 62.7 per cent. If the rate had rebounded to its pre-recession level, there would now be roughly eight million more people in the labor force.