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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A person who is looking for a full-time job that pays a living wage — but who can't find one — is unemployed. If you accept that definition, the true unemployment rate in the U.S. is a stunning 26.1%, according to an important new dataset shared exclusively with "Axios on HBO."

Why it matters: The official unemployment rate is artificially depressed by excluding people who might be earning only a few dollars a week. It also excludes anybody who has stopped looking for work or is discouraged by a lack of jobs or by the demands of child care during the coronavirus crisis.

  • If you measure the unemployed as anybody over 16 years old who isn't earning a living wage, the rate rises even further, to 54.6%. For Black Americans, it's 59.2%.

The backstory: The official definition of unemployment can be traced back to the 1870s, when a Massachusetts statistician named Carroll Wright diagnosed what he referred to as "industrial hypochondria".

  • By restricting the "unemployed" label to men who “really want employment,” Wright managed to minimize the unemployment figure.
  • Wright went on to found the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and he brought his unemployment definition with him.
  • To this day, to be officially counted as unemployed you need to be earning no money at all, and you need to be actively looking for work.
Expand chart
Data: Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: In January, when the official rate of unemployment was 3.6%, the true rate was seven times greater — 23.4%. That's according to new calculations from the Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity, founded by Gene Ludwig, a former U.S. Comptroller of the Currency.

  • "I was shocked," he tells Axios on HBO, "that a quarter of the population that want work can't earn a living wage."
  • The recession made everything worse. Only 46.1% of white Americans over the age of 16 — and a mere 40.8% of Black Americans — now have a full-time job paying more than $20,000 per year.

The bottom line: The unemployment catastrophe in America is not new. It's been at crisis levels for decades, but it has been hidden behind the official numbers. Ludwig's hope is that his new data will light a fire under Congress to address this national emergency.

Go deeper

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Jan 8, 2021 - Economy & Business

Labor market is moving in the wrong direction

Data: U.S. Department of Labor via FRED; Chart: Axios Visuals

More than 1 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits for the first time last week, even as new applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program fell to their lowest level since March.

State of play: The $900 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress at the end of December extended the PUA program through at least March but also added a new verification process that forces applicants to reapply in order to reduce fraud.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
23 mins ago - World

John Kerry and China's long road ahead on climate

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Brian Snyder/AFP via Getty Images

Yes, special climate envoy John Kerry's really in China and no, don't look for a huge breakthrough between the world's two largest carbon-emitting nations.

Driving the news: The State Department yesterday announced Kerry's visit this week, confirming plans that began emerging Saturday.

43 mins ago - Podcasts

Coinbase president Emilie Choi on mainstreaming crypto

Coinbase plans to go public on Wednesday, in a watershed moment for the cryptocurrency industry.

Axios Re:Cap speaks with Coinbase president and COO Emilie Choi about how she thinks about crypto, why Coinbase eschewed a traditional IPO and if we’re ever going to use bitcoin to buy a cup of coffee.