Jobless rates continued to climb at an alarming rate over the month of January, as companies slashed 598,000 positions in an effort to ride out the economic downturn. Today's Labor Department report was bleaker than many analysts had been predicting, with the unemployment rate increasing to 7.6 percent, the highest level since 1974.
Economists had been anticipating a net total loss of jobs of 524,000. But recent weeks have brought wave after wave of layoffs at companies such as Time Warner Cable Inc., Caterpillar Inc., and Microsoft Corp.
These sobering numbers reflect the widespread anxiety felt by the majority of Americans. According to a CBS News Poll released last night, Americans are more concerned about losing their jobs than at any point in more than a decade. Forty-four percent are very concerned that they or someone in their household will be laid off and on the job market sometime in the next twelve months. That's an increase of 14 points from last month and the highest number since CBS News began asking the question in 1996. Another 28 percent are somewhat concerned about losing their job.
Americans remain downbeat about the health of the economy as a whole, according to the CBS News Poll. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed – 94 percent - say the economy is in bad shape. That's the highest number in more than two decades. Only 5 percent believe that the state of the economy was strong.
The country is also bracing for a prolonged recession. Fifty-three percent believe that the recession will last two years or longer, a drop from 68 percent last month. The number of people who expect that the recession will last throughout much of 2009 increased, however. Thirty-nine percent think the recession will last six months to a year, up from 30 percent in January.
The Labor Department's report hits as the Senate remained gridlocked over President Barack Obama's $800 billion-plus stimulus package. The White House seized on these numbers to pressure Congress to pass the president's plan.
"These numbers, and the very real suffering of American workers they represent, reinforce the need for bold fiscal action," said Christina D. Romer, chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, in a statement after the report's release. "If we fail to act, we are likely to lose millions more jobs and the unemployment rate could reach double digits."
Still, as the CBS News poll illustrates, the majority of Americans are unconvinced that the stimulus package represents a silver bullet for the country's economic ills. Only 21 percent of Americans believe it will significantly shorten the recession, and an additional 18 percent believe it will only shorten the recession slightly. Forty-five percent say it will not shorten the recession at all.