You would think that Friday's employment report that the United States had added 431,000 jobs in May, the biggest monthly gain in 10 years, would be welcome news. That's especially true when you also consider the added employment dropped the national unemployment rate two-tenths of a point to 9.7 percent.
But when you examine what's behind the numbers, the colored glass you're looking through isn't nearly as rosy.
Of the 431,000 new jobs in May, only 41,000, about 9.5 percent, were in private business, the smallest number of new jobs since January. The lion's share -- 390,000 jobs -- were in the month's only true growth area -- census taking.
The U.S. Census Bureau had its biggest hiring month in May, but those are temporary jobs that this summer will evaporate more quickly than Lake Lanier during a drought. As those positions cycle away, some experts believe the U.S. jobless rate will move back up, peaking at about 10.4 percent later this summer.
A sense that the recovery is backsliding could result in some serious upheaval in the July party primary elections, a political season that already is shaping up, to play on a Steinbeck novel, into The Summer of Our Discontent. The dot on the "i" for incumbent is an inviting target for cynical voters who have heard too many unfulfilled political promises.
The jobs report was certainly an unfulfilled promise for market investors, who were expecting the numbers to show private sector jobs adding at least 100,000 last month. Experts say America has to add 125,000 new jobs each month simply to keep jobless percentages from rising. The slow private business personnel expansion sent the Dow under 10,000 and caused all the major indexes to drop at least 3 percent of their value by the time the short trading week closed.
The fact is no one is really sure just what to make of this recovery.
Consumer spending drives the U.S. economy, and consumers, who have seen their own salaries stagnate or decrease, don't have the confidence to go out and buy. As a result, businesses aren't seeing the product and service demands that would prompt them to add payroll jobs. A great many businesses are taking a conservative approach, opting for longer hours for those already on the payroll augmented with temporary hires.
It's a catch-22. Which comes first? Consumer spending or job growth? Like weary boxers in a late round, the two seem to be circling each other, each unwilling to swing first while looking for a sign of what to expect.
Still, the report does show some improvements. For instance, this time last year the U.S. was losing jobs by the hundreds of thousands. May was the fifth straight month in which the U.S. added workers. And experts expect consumer spending to maintain a pace that at least gives businesses enough confidence not to resume job-slashing mode.
Obviously, any real growth has to come in the private sector. More government workers dependent on tax revenues and federal borrowing to pay their salaries aren't the answer to what ails the U.S. economy. Before that patient can recover, however, it has to be stabilized. That may be what is happening now. As important as it is to add new jobs, it's even more important to keep improving, even in small increments, and to not relapse into another Great Recession.