WASHINGTON (CN) - Even as unemployment rose to 9.8 percent in September with the loss of 260,000 more jobs, Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner Keith Hall interpreted the numbers positively. "We're at a bit of a plateau where job loss is significant but it is nowhere near where it was earlier in the year," Hall said on Friday.
In addressing the Joint Economic Committee, Hall even suggested that job loss will stop within the next few months.
"We have seen a leveling off of this job loss," Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.
Hall from the bureau compared a recovering economy to recovery from an illness. "There are phases the economy goes through," he said- job are lost, then loss stops, then growth begins. "In past recessions, we've gone through these phases almost every time"
The nation is still in the first phase, he explained in an interview, but job loss should stop in a few months if this recession continues to follow the trends of past recessions.
Nonetheless, September marked the 21st consecutive month where unemployment has grown, with recession job losses totaling 7.2 million.
The new unemployment rate of 9.8 percent is double what it was when the recession began, and just one percent away from the record rate of 10.8 percent.
Unemployment has not been this extreme since 1983.
"Job loss was not as broad as six months ago," Hall said. Construction, manufacturing, local government, and retail trade were hit the hardest, but there was very little to no job loss outside of these industries.
Men over 55 years old have 7.3 percent unemployment, a whole percent higher than women of the same age group. "The differences are fairly surprising," he said, but added that the data is consistent with the scenario put forward by Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, who chaired the committee -- that women are married to older men who retire and that these women are going back to work to get health care.
Americans without a high school degree had 15 percent unemployment, while high school graduates had 10.8 percent unemployment. The unemployment rate of college graduates was less than half that, at just under 5 percent.
Health care and energy are the most resilient industries, both gaining jobs throughout the toughest times of the recession. In September, the health care sector gained 25,000 jobs and the energy sector had "significant job growth" as well, Hall reported.
Blacks had the highest unemployment at more than 15 percent, with Hispanics coming second at 12.7 percent. Whites were at 9 percent unemployment and Asians had the lowest unemployment, but the specific number wa not reported.
As usual during the monthly hearings, Democrats and Republicans tried to spin the numbers their way.
Texas Republican Rep. Kevin Brady argued that the high unemployment rate signals the failure of the Democrats to effectively respond to the economic crisis and Cummings, a Democrat, suggested the numbers would have been worse if the stimulus package had not gone through.
"Temporary government interventions are unsustainable sugar highs," Brady said, noting the $1.3 trillion the Federal Reserve injected into the financial markets in response to the crisis.
An aide held up a chart behind him comparing the actual growth in unemployment with that predicted by the White House for after the stimulus package went through.
The chart showed two quickly diverging lines, with real unemployment on a steep ascent and the predicted unemployment slowly falling. Brady pointed to this in saying the stimulus has not worked as planned.
The Obama administration had said in the past that unemployment would not go above 8 percent, but Obama has pulled back from that statement in the meantime.
Cummings asked Hall if he could interpret any benefit from the stimulus package by looking at the data, but Hall reminded the lawmakers that it is difficult to determine what caused the numbers in the report.
The lawmaker used the statistics to promote different agendas.
Republican Brady said the proposals before Congress to allegedly increase utility costs, health care costs, and to raise income taxes are giving employers pause before hiring. He said the Texas company representatives, who he speaks with on a weekly basis, are "convinced we're actually slowing this economic recovery."
Democrat Klobuchar said unemployment benefits should be extended in all states, and not just in states with the highest unemployment, as some in Congress have suggested. She mentioned that counties within states can have staggeringly different job markets.
Her state, Minnesota, has roughly 8 percent unemployment, well below the national average.
Towards the end of the hearing, Hall said the economy has come a long way.
Cummings shared a little analogy to characterize this difficult progress. "Life is like a caterpillar, 2 steps forward, 3 steps back, 5 steps forward," he said, remarking that in the end, the caterpillar gets where it wants to go.
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