The U.S. economy added 103,000 jobs in September, while the unemployment rate held steady at 9.1 percent, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The numbers beat economists' expectations but barely keep pace with population growth, reinforcing the growing fear among many that the labor market recovery is dead in the water.
"We are still making no progress on a recovery that's going to bring people back to work," said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz. "What I see is an economy that can't create enough opportunity to do more than just absorb the new population. Which is not much of a feat."
A chunk of today's headline number is attributed to the 45,000 striking Verizon workers who were not counted in last month's report and are now back to work. The report revised the number of new jobs added in July and August upward, but the average over the last four months was still a paltry 64,000 new positions -- well below the 100,000 to 150,000 jobs that economists generally believe are needed to account for population growth and lower than the average of the prior 14 months of job creation.
Meanwhile, the share of the unemployed who have been out of work for six months or longer crept up to 44.6 percent from 42.9 percent, as the number of long-term jobless increased from roughly 6 million to 6.2 million -- up from a year ago. More than 2 million of those Americans have been out of a job for more than 99 weeks. Another grim detail: The number of Americans working part-time because they have been unable to find full-time work increased by 444,000 to nearly 9.3 million.
Some economists on Friday morning focused on the report's upsides. In August, the headline number was zero net new jobs. The latest number, 103,000, is better.
"There is no hint in September's Employment Report that another recession is starting," wrote Paul Ashworth, the chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics.
But Katz said he saw little in today's numbers that will encourage businesses to begin hiring again -- or sway the thousands of Americans who have taken to the streets in part to protest the dismal labor market.
"There's been no recovery in the labor market so it's not surprising -- given that the labor market is what supports most people -- that the vast majority of the 99 percent are discontent," Katz said. "Consumers are strapped, and the federal government is debating whether they should do anything or make things worse."
While there has been little movement in Washington to suggest that the president's proposed jobs bill will soon be enacted, the Occupy Wall Street protests -- which began in New York City -- have been gathering momentum and spreading around the country.
"My parents can't afford for me to go to school," said Alyssa Castiglia, a student at Northeastern addressing a crowd of protesters this week. She described herself as "a typical Northeastern student," someone "who studied hard and got good grades but struggled to pay tuition."
"When I graduate, I'm going to have $125,000 in loans, which is $1,500 a month. I ask you how I am supposed to live off that. I am the 99 percent, and it isn't fair that someone who works hard can't succeed," said Castiglia.
Meanwhile, corporate profits remain at pre-recession levels.
"Those firms that have figured out how to sell into emerging expanding markets are doing fine now, even as we slog along," said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a Huffington Post blogger.
Bernstein, like many other economists, thinks that a government stimulus package is necessary to change the picture painted by today's report. Until then, the U.S. is likely to be stuck in a vicious cycle of depressed consumer spending and low consumer confidence.
"Look, we're a 70 percent consumption economy, and there really is a feedback mechanism," Bernstein said. "If people aren't working, they're not spending. If they're not spending, investors don't see much of a reason to invest and businesses see little incentive to hire, so it's a vicious cycle."
Consumer confidence dropped to a historic low in August and then improved only minimally in September. The reason: people have been living under an economic cloud for four years, according to Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research agency based in New York.
"What's really going on here is a certain amount of fatigue and a growing level of anger," said Goldstein. "There might only be a few hundred demonstrators downtown [in Zuccotti Park] right now. But do not assume that they are the only ones about ready to open up their window and yell out into the street, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.'"
"The consumer is waiting for business to hire more people, and business is waiting for more consumers [to spend]," Goldstein continued. "The only thing that is going to break this up is some stimulus spending. The truth is we do not have a fiscal crisis, we have a demand crisis."
In September, job growth occurred in professional and business services, health care, and construction, while state and local governments continued to shed jobs. Manufacturing, once the vanguard of a labor market recovery that never came, lost 13,000 jobs.
Reporters Arthur Delaney and Janell Ross contributed to this article.