The missing 100 million: how the pandemic reveals the fallacy of not in labor force

Last Friday, the U.S. published the long-feared employment situation report. It should come as no surprise to anyone since U.S. businesses were quick to lay off employees since much of the economy was shut down to abate the spread of the coronavirus.

Numbersense_coverI've been following employment statistics for a while. Chapter 6 of Numbersense (link) addresses the statistical aspects of how the unemployment rate is computed. The title of the chapter is "Are they new jobs when no one can apply?" What you learn is that the final number being published starts off as survey tallies, which then undergo a variety of statistical adjustments.

One such adjustment - which ought to be controversial - results in the disappearance of 100 million Americans. I mean, that they are invisible to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), considered neither employed nor unemployed. You don't hear about them because the media report the "headline" unemployment rate, which excludes these people. They are officially designated "not in the labor force". I'll come back to this topic later in the post.

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Last year, I used a pair of charts to visualize the unemployment statistics. I have updated the charts to include all of 2019 and 2020 up to April, the just released numbers.

The first chart shows the trend in the official unemployment rate ("U3") from 1990 to present. It's color-coded so that the periods of high unemployment are red, and the periods of low unemployment are blue. This color code will come in handy for the next chart.

Junkcharts_kfung_unemployment_apr20

The time series is smoothed. However, I had to exclude the April 2020 outlier from the smoother.

The next plot, a scatter plot, highlights two of the more debatable definitions used by the BLS. On the horizontal axis, I plot the proportion of employed people who have part-time jobs. People only need to have worked one hour in a month to be counted as employed. On the vertical axis, I plot the proportion of the population who are labeled "not in labor force". These are people who are not employed and not counted in the unemployment rate.

Junkcharts_kfung_unemployment_apr20_2

The value of data visualization is its ability to reveal insights about the data. I'm happy to report that this design succeeded.

Previously, we learned that (a) part-timers as a proportion of employment tend to increase during periods of worsening unemployment (red dots moving right) while decreasing during periods of improving employment (blue dots moving left); and (b) despite the overall unemployment rate being about the same in 2007 and 2017, the employment situation was vastly different in the sense that the labor force has shrunk significantly during the recession and never returned to normal. These two insights are still found at the bottom right corner of the chart. The 2019 situation did not differ much from 2018.

What is the effect of the current Covid-19 pandemic?

On both dimensions, we have broken records since 1990. The proportion of people designated not in labor force was already the worst in three decades before the pandemic, and now it has almost reached 40 percent of the population!

Remember these people are invisible to the media, neither employed nor unemployed. Back in February 2020, with unemployment rate at around 4 percent, it's absolutely not the case that 96 pecent of the employment-age population was employed. The number of employed Americans was just under 160 million. The population 16 years and older at the time was 260 million.

Who are these 100 million people? BLS says all but 2 million of these are people who "do not want a job". Some of them are retired. There are about 50 million Americans above 65 years old although 25 percent of them are still in the labor force, so only 38 million are "not in labor force," according to this Census report.

It would seem like the majority of these people don't want to work, are not paid enough to work, etc. Since part-time workers are counted as employed, with as little as one working hour per month, these are not the gig workers, not Uber/Lyft drivers, and not college students who has work-study or part-time jobs.

This category has long been suspect, and what happened in April isn't going to help build its case. There is no reason why the "not in labor force" group should spike immediately as a result of the pandemic. It's not plausible to argue that people who lost their jobs in the last few weeks suddenly turned into people who "do not want a job". I think this spike is solid evidence that the unemployed have been hiding inside the not in labor force number.

The unemployment rate has under-reported unemployment because many of the unemployed have been taken out of the labor force based on BLS criteria. The recovery of jobs since the Great Recession is partially nullified since the jump in "not in labor force" never returned to the prior level.

***

The other dimension, part-time employment, also showed a striking divergence from the past behavior. Typically, when the unemployment rate deteriorates, the proportion of employed people who have part-time jobs increases. However, in the current situation, not only is that not happening, but the proportion of part-timers plunged to a level not seen in the last 30 years.

This suggests that employers are getting rid of their part-time work force first.

 

 


How to read this chart about coronavirus risk

In my just-published Long Read article at DataJournalism.com, I touched upon the subject of "How to Read this Chart".

Most data graphics do not come with directions of use because dataviz designers follow certain conventions. We do not need to tell you, for example, that time runs left to right on the horizontal axis (substitute right to left for those living in right-to-left countries). It's when we deviate from the norms that calls for a "How to Read this Chart" box.

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A discussion over Twitter during the weekend on the following New York Times chart perfectly illustrates this issue. (The article is well worth reading to educate oneself on this red-hot public-health issue. I made some comments on the sister blog about the data a few days ago.)

Nyt_coronavirus_scatter

Reading this chart, I quickly grasp that the horizontal axis is the speed of infection and the vertical axis represents the deadliness. Without being told, I used the axis labels (and some of you might notice the annotations with the arrows on the top right.) But most people will likely miss - at a glance - that the vertical axis utilizes a log scale while the horizontal axis is linear (regular).

The effect of a log scale is to pull the large numbers toward the average while spreading the smaller numbers apart - when compared to a linear scale. So when we look at the top of the coronavirus box, it appears that this virus could be as deadly as SARS.

The height of the pink box is 3.9, while the gap between the top edge of the box and the SARS dot is 6. Yet our eyes tell us the top edge is closer to the SARS dot than it is to the bottom edge!

There is nothing inaccurate about this chart - the log scale introduces such distortion. The designer has to make a choice.

Indeed, there were two camps on Twitter, arguing for and against the log scale.

***

I use log scales a lot in analyzing data, but tend not to use log scales in a graph. It's almost a given that using the log scale requires a "How to Read this Chart" message. And the NY Times crew delivers!

Right below the chart is a paragraph:

Nyt_coronavirus_howtoreadthis

To make this even more interesting, the horizontal axis is a hidden "log" scale. That's because infections spread exponentially. Even though the scale is not labeled "log", think as if the large values have been pulled toward the middle.

Here is an over-simplified way to see this. A disease that spreads at a rate of fifteen people at a time is not 3 times worse than one that spreads five at a time. In the former case, the first sick person transmits it to 15, and then each of the 15 transmits the flu to 15 others, thus after two steps, 241 people have been infected (225 + 15 + 1). In latter case, it's 5x5 + 5 + 1 = 31 infections after two steps. So at this point, the number of infected is already 8 times worse, not 3 times. And the gap keeps widening with each step.

P.S. See also my post on the sister blog that digs deeper into the metrics.

 


The rule governing which variable to put on which axis, served a la mode

When making a scatter plot, the two variables should not be placed arbitrarily. There is a rule governing this: the outcome variable should be shown on the vertical axis (also called y-axis), and the explanatory variable on the horizontal (or x-) axis.

This chart from the archives of the Economist has this reversed:

20160402_WOC883_icecream_PISA

The title of the accompanying article is "Ice Cream and IQ"...

In a Trifecta Checkup (link), it's a Type DV chart. It's preposterous to claim eating ice cream makes one smarter without more careful studies. The chart also carries the xyopia fallacy: by showing just two variables, readers are unwittingly led to explain differences in "IQ" using differences in per-capita ice-cream consumption when lots of other stronger variables will explain any gaps in IQ.

In this post, I put aside my objections to the analysis, and focus on the issue of assigning variables to axes. Notice that this chart reverses the convention: the outcome variable (IQ) is shown on the horizontal, and the explanatory variable (ice cream) is shown on the vertical.

Here is a reconstruction of the above chart, showing only the dots that were labeled with country names. I fitted a straight regression line instead of a curve. (I don't understand why the red line in the original chart bends upwards when the data for Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong should be dragging it down.)

Redo_econ_icecreamIQ_1A

Note that the interpretation of the regression line raises eyebrows because the presumed causality is reversed. For each 50 points increase in PISA score (IQ), this line says to expect ice cream consumption to raise by about 1-2 liters per person per year. So higher IQ makes people eat more ice cream.

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If the convention is respected, then the following scatter plot results:

Redo_econ_icecreamIQ_2

The first thing to note is that the regression analysis is different here from that shown in the previous chart. The blue regression line is not equivalent to the black regression line from the previous chart. You cannot reverse the roles of the x and y variables in a regression analysis, and so neither should you reverse the roles of the x and y variables in a scatter plot.

The blue regression line can be interpreted as having two sections, roughly, for countries consuming more than or less than 6 liters of ice cream per person per year. In the less-ice-cream countries, the correlation between ice cream and IQ is stronger (I don't endorse the causal interpretation of this statement).

***

When you make a scatter plot, you have two variables for which you want to analyze their correlation. In most cases, you are exploring a cause-effect relationship.

Higher income households cares more on politics.
Less educated citizens are more likely to not register to vote.
Companies with more diverse workforce has better business performance.

Frequently, the reverse correlation does not admit a causal interpretation:

Caring more about politics does not make one richer.
Not registering to vote does not make one less educated.
Making more profits does not lead to more diversity in hiring.

In each of these examples, it's clear that one variable is the outcome, the other variable is the explanatory factor. Always put the outcome in the vertical axis, and the explanation in the horizontal axis.

The justification is scientific. If you are going to add a regression line (what Excel calls a "trendline"), you must follow this convention, otherwise, your regression analysis will yield the wrong result, with an absurd interpretation!

 

[PS. 11/3/2019: The comments below contain different theories that link the two variables, including theories that treat PISA score ("IQ") as the explanatory variable and ice cream consumption as the outcome. Also, I elaborated that the rule does not dictate which variable is the outcome - the designer effectively signals to the reader which variable is regarded as the outcome by placing it in the vertical axis.]


Wayward legend takes sides in a chart of two sides, plus data woes

Reader Chris P. submitted the following graph, found on Axios:

Axios_newstopics

From a Trifecta Checkup perspective, the chart has a clear question: are consumers getting what they wanted to read in the news they are reading?

Nevertheless, the chart is a visual mess, and the underlying data analytics fail to convince. So, it’s a Type DV chart. (See this overview of the Trifecta Checkup for the taxonomy.)

***

The designer did something tricky with the axis but the trick went off the rails. The underlying data consist of two set of ranks, one for news people consumed and the other for news people wanted covered. With 14 topics included in the study, the two data series contain the same values, 1 to 14. The trick is to collapse both axes onto one. The trouble is that the same value occurs twice, and the reader must differentiate the plot symbols (triangle or circle) to figure out which is which.

It does not help that the lines look like arrows suggesting movement. Without first reading the text, readers may assume that topics change in rank between two periods of time. Some topics moved right, increasing in importance while others shifted left.

The design wisely separated the 14 topics into three logical groups. The blue group comprises news topics for which “want covered” ranking exceeds the “read” ranking. The orange group has the opposite disposition such that the data for “read” sit to the right side of the data for “want covered”. Unfortunately, the legend up top does more harm than good: it literally takes sides!

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Here, I've put the data onto a scatter plot:

Redo_junkcharts_aiosnewstopics_1

The two sets of ranks are basically uncorrelated, as the regression line is almost flat, with “R-squared” of 0.02.

The analyst tried to "rescue" the data in the following way. Draw the 45-degree line, and color the points above the diagonal blue, and those below the diagonal orange. Color the points on the line gray. Then, write stories about those three subgroups.

Redo_junkcharts_aiosnewstopics_2

Further, the ranking of what was read came from Parse.ly, which appears to be surveillance data (“traffic analytics”) while the ranking of what people want covered came from an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll. As for as I could tell, there was no attempt to establish that the two populations are compatible and comparable.

 

 

 

 

 


Clearing a forest of labels

This chart by the Financial Times has a strong message, and I like a lot about it:

Ft-europe-growth

The countries are by and large aligned along a diagonal, with the poorer countries growing strongly between 2007-2019 while the richer countries suffered negative growth.

A small issue with the chart is the thick forest of text - redundant text. The sub-title, the axis titles, the quadrant labels, and the left-right-half labels all repeat the same things. In the following chart, I simplify the text:

Redo_fteuropegrowth_text

Typically, I don't put axis titles as a sub-header (or, header of the graphic) but as this may be part of the FT style, I respected it.


A data graphic that solves a consumer problem

Saw this great little sign at Ippudo, the ramen shop, the other day:

Ippudo_board

It's a great example of highly effective data visualization. The names on the board are sake brands. 

The menu (a version of a data table) is the conventional way of displaying this information.

The Question

Customers are selecting a sake. They don't have a favorite, or don't recognize many of these brands. They know a bit about their preferences: I like full-bodied, or I want the dry one. 

The Data

On a menu, the key data are missing. So the first order of business is to find data on full- and light-bodied, and dry and sweet. The pricing data are omitted, possibly because it clutters up the design, or because the shop doesn't want customers to focus on price - or both.

The Visual

The design uses a scatter plot. The customer finds the right quartet, thus narrowing the choices to three or four brands. Then, the positions on the two axes allow the customer to drill down further. 

This user experience is leaps and bounds above scanning a list of names, and asking someone who may or may not be an expert.

Back to the Data

The success of the design depends crucially on selecting the right data. Baked into the scatter plot is the assumption that the designer knows the two factors most influential to the customer's decision. Technically, this is a "variable selection" problem: of all factors determining the brand choice, which two are the most important? 

Think about the downside of selecting the wrong factors. Then, the scatter plot makes it harder to choose the sake compared to the menu. 

 


Visual Exploration of Unemployment Data

The charts on unemployment data I put up last week are best viewed as a collection. 

I have put them up on the (still in beta) JMP Public website. You can find the project here

Screen Shot 2019-01-20 at 1.47.59 PM

I believe that if you make an account, you can grab the underlying dataset.

 


Men and women faced different experiences in the labor market

Last week, I showed how the aggregate statistics, unemployment rate, masked some unusual trends in the labor market in the U.S. Despite the unemployment rate in 2018 being equal, and even a little below, that in 2000, the peak of the last tech boom, there are now significantly more people "not in the labor force," and these people are not counted in the unemployment rate statistic.

The analysis focuses on two factors that are not visible in the unemployment rate aggregate: the proportion of people considered not in labor force, and the proportion of employees who have part-time positions. The analysis itself masks a difference across genders.

It turns out that men and women had very different experiences in the labor market.

For men, things have looked progressively worse with each recession and recovery since 1990. After each recovery, more men exit the labor force, and more men become part-timers. The Great Recession, however, hit men even worse than previous recessions, as seen below:

Jc_unemployment_rate_explained_men

For women, it's a story of impressive gains in the 1990s, and a sad reversal since 2008.

Jc_unemployment_rate_explained_women

P.S. See here for Part 1 of this series. In particular, the color scheme is explained there. Also, the entire collection can be viewed here


What to make of the historically low unemployment rate

One of the amazing economic stories of the moment is the unemployment rate, which at around 4% has returned to the level last reached during the peak of the tech boom in 2000. The story is much more complex than it seems.

I devoted a chapter of Numbersense (link) to explain how the government computes unemployment rates. The most important thing to realize is that an unemployment rate of 4 percent does NOT mean that four out of 100 people in the U.S. are unemployed, and 96 out of 100 are employed.

It doesn't even mean that four out of 100 people of working age are unemployed, and 96 out of 100 of working age are employed.

What it means is of the people that the government decides are "employable", 96 out of 100 are employed. Officially, this employability is known as "in labor force." There are many ways to be disqualified from the labor force; one example is if the government decides that the person is not looking for a job.

On the flip side, who the government counts as "employed" also matters! Part-timers are considered employed. They are counted just like a full-time employee in the unemployment metric. Part-time, according to the government, is one to 34 hours worked during the week the survey is administered.

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So two factors can affect the unemployment rate a lot - the proportion of the population considered "not in labor force" (thus not counted at all); and the proportion of those considered employed who are part-timers. (Those are two disjoint groups.)

The following chart then shows that despite the unemployment rate looking great, the U.S. labor market in 2018 looks nothing like what it looked like from 1990 to 2008.

Jc_unemployment_rate_explained

Technical notes: all the data are seasonally adjusted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I used a spline to smooth the data first - the top chart shows the smoothed version of the unemployment rates. Smoothing removes month-to-month sharp edges from the second chart. The color scale is based on standardized values of the smoothed data.

 

P.S. See Part 2 of this series explores the different experiences of male and female workers. Also, the entire collection can be viewed here.


Message-first visualization

Sneaky Pete via Twitter sent me the following chart, asking for guidance:

Sneakypete_twitter

This is a pretty standard dataset, frequently used in industry. It shows a breakdown of a company's profit by business unit, here classified by "state". The profit projection for the next year is measured on both absolute dollar terms and year-on-year growth.

Since those two metrics have completely different scales, in both magnitude and unit, it is common to use dual axes. In the case of the Economist, they don't use dual axes; they usually just print the second data series in its own column.

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I first recommended looking at the scatter plot to see if there are any bivariate patterns. In this case, not much insights are provided via the scatter.

From there, I looked at the data again, and ended up with the following pair of bumps charts (slopegraphs):

Redo_jc_sneakypete

A key principle I used is message-first. That is to say, the designer should figure out what message s/he wants to convey via the visualization, and then design the visualization to convey that message.

A second key observation is that the business units are divided into two groups, the two large states (A and F) and the small states (B to E). This is a Pareto principle that very often applies to real-world businesses, i.e. a small number of entities contribute most of the revenues (or profits). It is very likely that these businesses are structured to serve the large and small states differently, and so the separation onto two charts mirrors the internal structure.

Then, within each chart, there is a message. For the large states, it looks like state F is projected to overtake state A next year. That is a big deal because we're talking about the largest unit in the entire company.

For the small states, the standout is state B, decidedly more rosy than the other three small states with similar projected growth rates.

Note also I chose to highlight the actual dollar profits, letting the growth rates be implied in the slopes. Usually, executives are much more concerned about hitting a dollar value than a growth rate target. But that, of course, depends on your management's preference.