The commonly-accepted unemployment figures for the Great Depression are overstated.
Specifically, government workers were counted as unemployed by Stanley Lebergott (the BLS economist who put together the most widely used numbers) ... even though gainfully employed and receiving a pay check.
If we're trying to compare current unemployment figures with the Great Depression, the calculations of economists such as Michael Darby are more accurate.
Here is a comparison of Lebergott and Darby's unemployment figures:
Year Lebergott Darby
1929 3.2% 3.2%
1930 8.7% 8.7%
1931 15.9% 15.3%
1932 23.6% 22.9%
1933 24.9% 20.6%
1934 21.7% 16.0%
1935 20.1% 14.2%
1936 16.9% 9.9%
1937 14.3% 9.1%
1938 19.0% 12.5%
1939 17.2% 11.3%
1940 14.6% 9.5%
(see Robert A. Margo's Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s.)
We've Got Depression-Level Unemployment
Unemployment is currently underreported. Even government officials admit that their "adjustments" to unemployment figures are inaccurate during recessions.
In addition, the most widely-cited statistics use the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics' "U-3" methodology. But "U-6" figures are more accurate, because they include people who would like full-time work, but can only find part-time work, or people who have given up looking for work altogether. U-6 is also is closer to the way unemployment was measured during the Great Depression than U-3
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