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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.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Over 3,000 detained in protests across Russia demanding Navalny's release

Russian police officers beat protestesters at a rally against of jailing of oppositon leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow on Saturday. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Police in Russia on Saturday arrested more than 3,300 people as protesters nationwide demanded that opposition leader Alexey Navalny be released from jail.

Details: Demonstrations began in the eastern regions of Russia and spread west to more than 60 cities.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona Republicans censure Cindy McCain and GOP governor

Combination images of Cindy McCain and Gov. Doug Ducey. Photo: FilmMagic/FilmMagic for U.S.VETS/Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Arizona Republican Party members voted on Saturday to censure prominent GOP figures Cindy McCain, Gov. Doug Ducey and former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who've all faced clashes with former President Trump.

Why it matters: Although the resolution is symbolic, this move plus the re-election of the Trump-endorsed Kelli Ward as state GOP chair shows the strong hold the former president has on the party in Arizona, despite President Biden winning the state in the 2020 election.