When the black unemployment numbers dropped so steeply in January—from 15.7 to 12.7 percent—a lot of analysts were scratching their heads to figure out why. One told us that it was “quite surprising,” but there would be no way to know what the numbers meant or whether they were accurate until we saw if the trend continued in later months. But why is that? Aren’t these numbers hard and fast facts? We dug a little deeper into the process of tracking joblessness to find out. Put on your data nerd hat and follow along.
We learned two important things. First, it’s confusing. Second, it’s difficult to know each month if the latest numbers bandied about on newscasts are as accurate as we think they are. When unemployment numbers fall, like they did so dramatically with black workers last month, any one of three factors could be driving that change—and it’s difficult to know which one is really making the difference. Colorlines.com graphic designer Hatty Lee has mapped out the three factors visually below, but here’s the detailed explanation of each option.