Q: There is a widespread belief in N.J. that our reported unemployment rate, recently said to be 4.9 percent in a mailout from our governor, is considerably below the true value. One reason is said to be that when your unemployment benefits run out after 6 months, you are no longer considered unemployed. This sounds ludicrous, but the story is repeated by word-of-mouth so frequently that I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I would also appreciate your comments regarding how this rate calculation is handled in other states. I am currently unemployed and this issue is near and dear to my heart. I see far too many men driving around and jogging during the day in the neighborhood, and I think the true unemployment rate (when all the jobseekers are included) is much higher than what we are being told. — Tom S. , Pennington, N.J.
A: The New Jersey governor’s mailing is correct — even if you add the upcoming loss of his job to the statistics. The state's employment picture roughly mirrors the rest of the nation: the unemployment rate has been falling over the last year from a high of 6.1 percent in July, 2003. Though the job drought is easing somewhat, the situation is nowhere near as rosy as it was during the boom of the late '90s — when the jobless rate in the state hit a low of 3.4 percent in February 2001.
As for how gets counted, the Bureau of Labor Statistics asks people in it household survey if they are employed, looking for work or not looking. If you’re looking for work and unemployed, you get counted as unemployed even if your benefits have run out.
Keep in mind these are statewide averages — the unemployment rate in your neighborhood will almost certainly be higher or lower. In New Jersey, for example, the numbers at the county level range from a low of 2.7 percent in Hunterdon County to a high of 7.0 percent in Cumberland County.