Who Has COVID-19 Put Out of Work?

I guess I’m just perpetually confused these days. The Wall Street Journal—following the lead of lots of other news outlets—tells us today that labor force participation has dropped during the pandemic, and that it’s especially dropped for women. On the first claim, it’s hard to say anything other than “duh.” We have deliberately closed businesses and put people out of work, so of course labor participation is down. As for the second, here’s the chart:

The participation rate for men has dropped 1.6 percentage points. The participation rate for women has dropped 2.0 percentage points. This is not a big difference, and in any case it’s all due to noise between August and October. It could turn around completely next month. Or it could get worse. Who knows?

Journalists seem bound and determined to slice and dice economic data these days looking for tiny differences that they can spin into a narrative of some kind. They should stop. The fact that employment is down is inevitable, and it tells us nothing about whether it will recover when the pandemic recedes. And when you start slicing small numbers into ever smaller ones, it tells you less than nothing.

If there’s something big happening, then by all means tell the story. But if you’re relying on fractions of a percent in a noisy data series, it’s time to step back and think about whether you’re really sure anything serious is going on.

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