California's unemployment rate has been edging downwards in recent months in an apparent sign of slow recovery from the state's worst recession since the Great Depression, dropping to 11.3 percent in November.
But it's a mixed bag of numbers.
The good news is that a quarter-million more Californians were working in November than a year earlier, and that was more than enough to offset a 34,000-person increase in the labor force, so the unemployment rate dropped by 1.2 percentage points from the previous November, although it's still one of the nation's highest.
The bad news is that about 2 million Californians considered to be in the labor force are still jobless, and that's about a million more than were unemployed before recession struck the state. Roughly half of the 2 million jobless workers are receiving unemployment insurance benefits and the state fund that pays them is nearly $10 billion in the red and subsisting largely on loans from the federal government.
That fund covers only the first 26 weeks of unemployment for about a half-million recipients. Benefit extensions for another half-million, up to 99 weeks in total, are financed by the feds, but the longest extensions will expire in less than two weeks unless Congress renews them. They are ensnared in a sharp partisan battle in Washington.
In all, state and federal unemployment insurance payments total about $1.2 billion a month, but that's down from a 2011 high of more than $1.6 billion last March. About a quarter-million Californians exhaust their benefits each month, although some may qualify for additional benefits upon re-application. Approximately that many initial claims for benefits are filed each month.
Beyond the unemployment rate, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles data on the deeper effects of recession, called "underutilization," that charts not only workers without jobs, but those underemployed or discouraged by failure to find work.
By that measure, with data complete through the second quarter of 2011, California's employment distress is second only to Nevada's among the states.
The "U-6" number includes the unemployment rate, plus "marginally attached" workers and those forced into part-time work. California's U-6 rate is 21.8 percent of its labor force, nearly twice the official unemployment rate. Nevada's U-6 rate is 23.3 percent, while the least distressed state is North Dakota at 7.2 percent, followed by Nebraska at 8.4 percent.
Or to put it another way, the job situation in North Dakota is about three times as good as it is in California.