The U.S. economy is stuck in spring mud. For the second month in a row, the United States labor market underperformed expectations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the economy created a lackluster 115,000 jobs in April. The unemployment rate fell one notch, to 8.1 percent, but for a distressing reason: The overall size of the U.S. labor force dropped by 342,000, a sign that hundreds of thousands of Americans simply gave up looking for work in April. The labor force participation rate fell to 63.6 percent, the lowest mark since 1981.
The only good news in the report: The numbers for February and March were both revised upward, from 240,000 to 259,000 in February, and from 120,000 to 154,000 in March. The economy is still growing. Indeed, over the past 12 months, the U.S has added 1.8 million private sector jobs.
The glum report comes as little surprise. While economic data points were all over the map in April, some key indicators -- jobless claims, Wednesday's ADP private sector labor report, and the first estimate of GDP growth for the first quarter of 2012 -- all suggested that the economic recovery that seemed so robust over the winter was losing steam. The numbers aren't bad enough to justify outright panic; Americans are still lustily buying cars, the manufacturing sector appears strong, and gas prices are dropping steadily for their recent highs -- but it's still very difficult to see signs of sustained momentum. This is the economy we've got right now. We can't even blame austerity: Government payrolls dropped by only 15,000.
Ironically, on Thursday, Gallup's presidential approval survey showed Obama at 51 percent, the highest mark he's received since Seal Team Six took out Osama bin Laden. Conventional wisdom has assumed that Obama's steadily improving approval ratings tracked the growing economy. If so, it will be interesting to see if those numbers start coming down again.
Mitt Romney, as one might expect, is already on the case. He promptly told Fox News that it was a "terrible job report." That, strictly speaking, is not true. A "terrible" jobs report is one in which the economy loses half a million jobs or more in a single month -- as was the case when Obama took office in 2009. (In fact, economist Justin Wolfers tweeted, April's jobs report marks a milestone of sorts: Private sector job creation is, for the first time, in positive territory for the entirety of Obama's term. Since January 2009, the private sector has added 35,000 jobs. The public sector, in contrast, has shed 607,000. So much for Big Government!)
April's jobs report is disappointing, and could signal worse news to come, but there's still a decent chance that we are just experiencing a bump in the road. By most measures, the U.S. economy is performing much better than it was a year ago.