Unemployment would have been worse had not even more adults -- 169,000 -- chosen to join the ranks of those neither working nor seeking employment.
Hiring and layoffs tend to lag other economic indicators. Gross domestic product fell 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter, fears of a government shutdown slowed consumer spending in December and encouraged businesses to cut inventories. Even if the economy doesn't slip into a recession, unemployment would rocket.
In the weakest recovery since the Great Depression, most of the reduction in unemployment from its 10.0 percent peak in October 2009 has been accomplished through a significant drop in the percentage of adults working or looking for work. Were adult labor-force participation the same today, the unemployment rate would be 9.9 percent and were the participation rate the same as when U.S. President Barack Obama took office it would be more than 10 percent.
Adding in part-time workers who would prefer full employment but can't find it, the unemployment rate becomes 14.4 percent. It rose to more than 14 percent in the wake of the financial crisis and remains stuck there.
Convincing millions of Americans they don't want a job or compelling desperate workers to settle for part time work has been the Obama administration's most effective jobs program.
Prospects for stronger growth remain poor because virtually every wage earner is paying higher payroll taxes and the recent budget deal raises income taxes $40 billion to $50 billion, annually, mostly from higher rates on families earning more than $450,000. Together, those further dampen consumer spending and aggregate demand.
On the supply side, increased business regulations, rising healthcare costs and mandates imposed by ObamaCare and higher tax rates on small businesses raise the cost of capital.
Efforts to reduce the deficit and avert a downgrade for the credit rating on federal debt that raised taxes and sliced spending $200 billion-$300 billion, immediately, could send the economy into a recession and unemployment to more than 10 percent.
The puzzle of reducing federal deficits to sustainable levels and accomplishing stronger growth and jobs creation, consistent with the underlying potential of the economy, remains difficult because the $500 billion trade deficit on oil and with China continues to drag on demand and a tighter regulatory climate makes businesses cautious about investing in the United States.
The economy would have to add about 13.9 million jobs over the next three years -- about 363,000 each month -- to bring unemployment down to 6 percent. That would require GDP growth in the range of 4-5 percent.
Without better regulatory and trade policies, it is simply not possible to accelerate growth, create enough jobs and bring down federal deficits -- all at the same time.
(Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland School, and a widely published columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @pmorici1.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)