It is widely known that official unemployment figures are far too low. Millions of jobless workers are “counted out” of the labor market – they just don’t exist, as far as the statistics are concerned.

This form of under-counting is particularly bad for youth 16-19 years old. But it is possible to estimate the actual unemployment rate and compare it to the “official” rate. These are the figures for April, 2003:


Official Actual

White teens 15% 28%

Latino teens 16% 43%

African American teens 31% 61%

This table shows the catastrophic situation confronting young people, at a time when school costs are rising and families are facing growing difficulties. Some of the most shocking facts:

• Even using official figures, unemployment is serious for all teens, and at crisis levels (31 percent) for African Americans.

• Actual teen unemployment is twice as high as the official figures, meaning that half of jobless young people are never counted.

• African American teens have double the unemployment rate as white teens.

• Official figures show Latino and white teens have similar unemployment rates. After correcting the figures, I estimate the unemployment rate for Latino youth is 53 percent greater than for white youth.

• In numbers, 3.3 million teenagers are actually unemployed – three times the official figure of 1.2 million.

These figures are for April, when many teenagers are in high school or college. Even then, many work as all the hours they can get, to pay for school, for personal expenses, to help at home, or to support their own households. In July, millions of students will be looking for summer jobs. They will find that the city and state summer jobs programs have been dried up by fiscal crisis, and private-sector jobs in the tourist industry and other traditional summer employers have been slashed by the continuing recession.

In Connecticut this year, a program called LEAP fell victim to the state’s budget axe. In LEAP, older high school kids worked as tutors and counselors, providing mentoring for younger kids in reading, sports and recreation. The program has been cut to a fraction of its original size; most of the older kids were laid off, and the younger kids have nowhere to go after school. There are dozens of programs like LEAP in Connecticut, thousands across the country, that are victims of state and city fiscal crises, and the administration’s singleminded focus on making the rich richer.

Instead of cutbacks, we need far more of these programs. We need them for the jobs they provide older youth, and for the services they provide to younger kids and to the community. This summer, $10 billion could provide between 2 million and 5 million good summer jobs for youth. Compare that with the $75 billion spend to conquer and occupy Iraq. It’s less expensive, and far better, for youth to have jobs cleaning up neighborhoods, working in camps and sports programs, doing construction and maintenance in parks and public buildings – than to have jobs invading other countries.

Where do the numbers come from?

The “official” unemployment rates are calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It is based on the BLS’ estimate of the size of the labor force – everyone who says they worked (even if only for an hour) in the past week, along with everyone who was unemployed. If you haven’t looked for work in the past month, you are not counted as unemployed or as part of the labor force: you simply don’t exist.

In April, 2000, before the recession, the BLS said that 53 percent of white teens were part of the labor force – they were either working, or actively looking for work. Today, only 45 percent of white teens are part of the labor force, and far less for Latinos and African Americans. But teenagers need and undoubtedly want jobs just as much now as they did three years ago. African-American and Latino youth, who are much less likely to come from high-income families or to attend school full-time without working, certainly need jobs as much as white youth.

I took the percentage of white teens in the labor force in April, 2000, and estimated that at least the same percentage of all teens would be working today if they had the opportunity. This gives the corrected size of the labor force. The BLS reports how many have jobs. The difference is the corrected number of unemployed.

The author can be reached at



Art Perlo
Art Perlo

Art Perlo lived in New Haven, Conn., where he was active in labor and community struggles. He did research and writing on economic issues in Connecticut, including work with the Coalition to End Child Poverty in Connecticut which helped pave the way for the movement for progressive tax reform in the state. He wrote on national economic issues for the People's World and was a member of the CPUSA Economic Commission.