The latter figure arguably gives a more accurate picture of US unemployment because it includes people who want full-time work, but can only find part-time work, and those who want to find a job, but have given up looking. If we take the rate as 15.9%, then one in six members of the US labour force brings home little or no money.
This is clearly a huge burden on those individuals and on their loved ones, but what is its effect on the owners of US companies, and their shareholders?
Some statistics from the US Labor Department suggest that the shareholders and business owners have not fared badly at all in the past two years. From mid-2009 until the end of 2010, output per hour at US non-farm businesses rose 5.2% as companies found ways to squeeze more productivity out of existing staff. But hourly wages rose only 0.3% in relative terms. In other words, companies shared only 6% of productivity gains with their workers.
A Bank of America Merrill Lynch report came to a similar conclusion. Even though US companies have collected about US$940 billion since the credit crisis, most are not spending the money on new staff. The report predicted that corporate investment would climb 11% in 2011, while employment would only rise 1.7%.
Another problem for US workers is that companies are employing cheap overseas labour. Examples include the two software makers, Oracle and Cisco Systems, which have both added about twice as many workers overseas over the past five years as in the US and General Electric, which has about 54% of its workforce abroad.
Even workers who have jobs face the negative effects of rising unemployment as the paucity of jobs has also led to wage depression.
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