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Tag Archives: Disabilities

Why the Unemployment Rate Still Matters

Just like your body, the economy is a superbly complex system. When you visit doctors or other healthcare providers, they routinely take several measurements — height, weight, blood pressure, and temperature. Tracking these vital signs over time can lead you and your healthcare providers to seek further tests. Yet, even when your healthcare providers need more information, they continue to take the basic measurements.

In much the same way, the government routinely measures the health of the economy. Here at BLS, we specialize in tracking labor market activity, working conditions, productivity, and price changes. One of our most important measures is the national unemployment rate. Since it is measured the same way each month, year after year, changes in the rate can be an important signal of changes in the labor market and economy.

We realize, of course, that the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the full story. It isn’t meant to. Much like your temperature is a necessary measurement, its usefulness increases when viewed with other measures. When we release the unemployment rate each month, we also publish five alternative measures of labor underutilization to help assess labor market conditions from several perspectives.

Chart showing trends in alternative measures of labor underutilization.

In addition, the source for the unemployment data, the Current Population Survey, provides a wealth of information about workers, jobseekers, and people who aren’t working or looking for work. For example, we also get information about trends in labor force participation, a topic that has received much public attention in recent years. BLS releases thousands of other measures monthly, quarterly, and annually, depending on the topic.

For example, if you want to know how adult Black men are performing in the labor market, we have a stat for that. Ditto for people with a less than high school education or veterans with service-connected disabilities.

And if you want to know how employers are doing (say, how many job openings they’ve posted and how many workers have been fired or quit their jobs in the past month), check out our Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.

Want to know what is happening in your local area? Not a problem. Each month BLS releases state employment and unemployment data and metropolitan area data too.

We invite you to visit our website or contact one of our expert economists next time you have a question about the health of labor market—or your favorite economic “symptom.”

BLS Releases Data from the New Occupational Requirements Survey

Pop the corks! We published the first-ever Occupational Requirements Survey estimates and news release this morning. The survey provides unique information about the physical demands, environmental conditions, education and training, and mental requirements of jobs in the United States. We’re running the survey under an agreement with the Social Security Administration so they can make decisions about their disability programs. Employers, jobseekers, and state and local workforce agencies can also use the data to match people with jobs that are right for them. Researchers will find the survey useful for expanding our understanding of the labor market.

Here are a few highlights from the survey for 2016.

  • 31 percent of jobs in 2016 had no minimum education requirement; 17.5 percent of jobs required at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • 75 percent of jobs required some on-the-job training, and 48 percent required prior work experience.
  • 47 percent of jobs involved working outdoors at some point during the workday.
  • 66 percent of jobs involved some reaching overhead.
  • 39 percent of jobs involved regular contact with others several times per hour.

Chart showing percentage of jobs with selected physicial requirements in 2016

Creating new gold-standard information like this takes years of testing and development. Staff from BLS and the Social Security Administration worked closely together to get it right. After today’s news release, we will highlight the survey data in several publications in the coming year. We will feature selected job requirements and occupations. For more information on the new survey, including Frequently Asked Questions about it, please see

The Value and Influence of Labor Statistics in the 21st Century

What’s in the “DNA” of BLS—what were we born with? Not so long ago, as I prepared to become BLS Commissioner, I read the First 100 Years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The first chapter describes how BLS was created (in 1884) during a time of severe economic upheaval and industrial unrest. Policymakers of the time realized that a key barrier to peace and shared prosperity was the lack of trustworthy information about the economy. What has struck me ever since is how we can trace some of the distinguishing features of today’s modern BLS directly back to those first days, to the vision of one of our founders. This post links that past to the BLS of today.

Carroll D. Wright, first BLS Commissioner

Commissioner Carroll D. Wright

In 1893, sometime after becoming the first Commissioner of Labor, Carroll D. Wright set forth a mission for the agency. He was a pioneer in the search for truth and a better understanding of labor statistics by the public. In his Value and Influence of Labor Statistics (later published in the 54th Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor), he described our mission as collecting “information upon the subject of labor in the United States, its relation to capital, the hours of labor, and the earnings of laboring men and women, and the means of promoting their material, social, intellectual, and moral prosperity.”

Today, our mission is much the same as it was then. Commissioner Wright established a modern statistical agency long before the Internet made it possible for anyone to access our data and read our publications on demand. These days we say that our mission is “to collect, analyze, and disseminate essential economic information to support public and private decision-making.” While the wording has evolved with the times, the core meaning remains the same. Furthermore, in support of our mission for the past 132 years, BLS has practiced what Commissioner Wright termed “the fearless publication of the facts without regard to the influence those facts may have upon any party’s position or any partisan’s views.”

Wright developed much of the vision and practices that he instilled here while working for the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor from 1873 to 1878. There he launched several studies to provide the people of Massachusetts with accurate labor market data. One of the largest studies was to find out the true unemployment level in Massachusetts. At the time, many people believed there were 200,000–300,000 people unemployed in the state and 3,000,000 unemployed in the entire country. Alarmists spread word through newspapers, speeches in Congress, and political resolutions until these figures were widely believed as fact, despite no previous attempt to measure unemployment. Wright’s staff canvassed the state twice to discover if the rumored number was accurate. The Bureau of Statistics of Labor of Massachusetts determined the true number of unemployed in the state was 28,508 skilled and unskilled laborers in June 1878; by November there were fewer than 23,000 unemployed, while the national number could not have been more than 460,000 unemployed. Wright explained that “The figures published by the report were used all over the country, and completely reversed the popular belief relative to the vast number of the alleged unemployed in the country.”

Today, you can see a parallel between Wright’s efforts to learn and classify the number of unemployed workers in Massachusetts and how BLS has expanded its offering to include six alternative measures of unused or underused labor. We call these measures U-1 through U-6. BLS not only calculates these alternative measures nationally, but also for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and two large metro areas. This ensures that the American public, researchers, and policymakers have a wide range of data to understand the health of the labor market and make important decisions.

Also similar is our enduring focus on specific populations in the workforce. Under Wright’s leadership, state Bureaus of Labor investigated the use of child labor and uncovered the “evils it entailed upon the community.” The Bureaus published the number of young children (those under 10 years old) who worked in factories and workshops. Because of these studies, the numbers declined significantly. Time and again, Wright sought out the facts and ensured the American people had the information they needed to make decisions. Wright said, “It is only through rigid, impartial, and fearless investigations that any community can know itself in many directions.”

Today, we continue to seek new and better measures about particular groups in our economy and society. For example, in recent years BLS expanded the scope of the Current Population Survey to include six new questions to identify people with disabilities. These data provide insight into the labor market challenges of people with disabilities. The data aid individuals, nonprofit organizations, employers, and policymakers in making decisions affecting the lives of Americans with disabilities. Our monthly Employment Situation report now includes information about the employment status and labor force participation of the more than 30 million Americans age 16 and older living with a disability.

Our “DNA,” that is, our mission, our vision, and our understanding of the value of the statistics we produce, is as important today as it was in 1884. We continue our determined work to impartially collect, analyze, and publish essential economic information to support private and public decision-making. Today BLS provides a wide variety of information that benefits all Americans. I am certain that Commissioner Wright would be pleased that our reports, charts, and data are far more accessible than he ever could have imagined. Whether you’re exploring a new occupation, starting a business, looking for the change in consumer and producer prices, identifying average wages by occupation, or learning how Americans spend their time, there’s a stat for that. For all these situations and many more, BLS helps Americans make smart decisions in their lives. The cost of providing this valuable information may come out to less than $2 per person each year, but its positive impact remains priceless.

Why This Counts: How BLS Data Support the Goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act

This July marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Its goal is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities in employment, government services, transportation, and other aspects of their lives. The law prohibits employment discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.

Today I want to tell you about the role BLS data play in supporting the goals of the ADA—one of our nation’s proudest civil rights triumphs.

The renowned physicist Lord Kelvin wrote more than a century ago, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” When the ADA became law, we had no reliable measure of the number of people with disabilities who were working or seeking work. To track our nation’s progress, we needed statistics.

In 1998, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13078 to reduce barriers to employment for people with disabilities. The order required BLS, the U.S. Census Bureau, and other agencies to “design and implement a statistically reliable and accurate method to measure the employment rate of adults with disabilities.” The order also required us to publish employment data on people with disabilities as often as possible. BLS joined with other federal agencies and academic researchers to develop a short set of survey questions to identify people with disabilities.

Extensive research and testing showed the challenges of counting the number of people with disabilities using only a few survey questions. The team persevered, however, and in June 2008, we added six new questions to the Current Population Survey (CPS) to identify people with disabilities. The CPS is the monthly survey of about 60,000 households that we use to measure the U.S. labor force and unemployment rate. Adding these questions allowed us for the first time to track the employment status of people with disabilities. You can learn more in our Frequently Asked Questions about the disability data we collect.

The charts below show a few of the facts we have learned about the labor force status of people with a disability.

In 2014, there were about 29 million people age 16 and older with a disability in the civilian population outside of institutions. (Institutions include skilled-nursing facilities, in-patient hospice facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons.) That was 11.8 percent of the total. We call this the disability rate, the percentage of people in a group who have a disability. Older people are more likely than younger people to have a disability.


About 8 in 10 people with a disability were not in the labor force in 2014, compared with about 3 in 10 of those with no disability. Many of those with a disability are age 65 and older; older people are less likely to participate in the labor force than people in younger age groups.


The employment–population ratio—the number employed as a percentage of the population—for people with a disability is much lower than for those with no disability. This is the case across all major race and ethnicity groups.


The unemployment rate for people with a disability was 12.5 percent in 2014, about twice the rate of 5.9 percent for those with no disability. (The unemployed are people who did not have a job, were available for work, and were actively looking for a job in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.)


BLS publishes monthly data on people with a disability in Table A-6 of the Employment Situation news release. In addition, we have published an annual news release on the labor force characteristics of people with a disability since 2009.

Many dedicated economists, statisticians, and survey methodologists inside and outside the U.S. government conducted the research to develop questions about disability. Terry McMenamin was one of the key contributors in developing the first questions about people with a disability. Terry was also instrumental in developing, testing, and fielding questions in the May 2012 CPS that gathered even more data on people with a disability. Those questions asked about the labor market problems confronting people with a disability. Tragically, Terry passed away in an automobile accident last fall. Terry was passionate about his work in collecting high-quality labor market data on people with a disability. He was a valued member of the BLS family, and all who worked with him miss him greatly.

BLS is committed to providing essential economic information to support public and private decision making. As Commissioner, I am proud of the work by BLS and others not only in developing measures about disability, but also in supporting the ADA’s goal to promote fairness in labor practices for all Americans.

Labor force characteristics of people with a disability

This week BLS published a news release examining the labor force characteristics in 2012 of people with a disability. This topic is of increasing interest to people in many communities, including persons with a disability and their families, job counselors, therapists, and policymakers. Here are a few of the key facts mentioned in the release. In 2012, 17.8 percent of people with a disability were employed. That compares with an employment-population ratio of 63.9 percent for people without a disability. The lower ratio among those with a disability results, in part, from the fact that a large share of people with a disability are age 65 and older, and older persons are less likely to be employed. Across all age groups, however, people with a disability were much less likely to be employed than those with no disability. Among the employed, 33 percent of workers with a disability were employed part time, compared with 19 percent of those with no disability. Employed persons with a disability also were more likely to be self-employed than those with no disability.