This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released unemployment numbers for April . While the national unemployment rate stayed about the same, according to the government, the unemployment rate for new veterans dropped from 10.3 percent in March to 9.2 percent in April. For more than a year, IAVA has been fighting to lower new veterans’ unemployment and we would love to see a dramatic drop in the rates. But this drop, unfortunately, is not statistically significant. The numbers give some indication that employment is marginally improving among new veterans – which will be great news if it holds.
But don’t get too excited, yet. They also reflect another problem we face: the profound shortage of information we have about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
The BLS numbers we analyze on a monthly basis track the unemployment rate for ALL veterans who served after September 2001 – not only Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Furthermore, BLS assesses the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran unemployment rate only once a year, making it hard to track how this particular community is doing.
And employment isn’t the only blind spot. Public information about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is lacking on many issues—where they live, how many are homeless, and even how many are committing suicide. IAVA does its part by surveying our members, but the government has a responsibility to both collect and disseminate better information about all issues confronting this generation of veterans so that together we can address them.
IAVA conducted our annual survey of our members , who are all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, in January of this year. We found a 17 percent unemployment rate. Our sample may not be identical to the whole population of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but the difference clearly indicates that, when it comes to veterans of these two wars, there is more to the story than we can see in the monthly BLS numbers.
Since last April, the BLS new veteran unemployment rate has gone up and down repeatedly – looking at a single month-to-month change can make you miss the big picture. The BLS survey sample is too small for that kind of tracking, so it is critical to look at trends in the rates rather than at month-to-month changes. The best measure is year-to-year, meaning the difference in April 2011 and April 2012 rates, which in this case is not statistically different.
Overall, however, there does appear to be a marginal shift downward over the course of the past year. If it holds, that would be a good thing. It might suggest that the actions taken by the government, the private sector and groups like IAVA are beginning to have an impact. It will be a few more months, though, before we know whether that marginal trend is real and sustainable.
In the meantime, we should not assume that the unemployment rate is down and our work is over. We should continue to watch the trends in the available BLS numbers. We should seek to find better measures of Iraq and Afghanistan veteran unemployment. And we must prepare ourselves for another wave of new veterans entering the job market as the war in Afghanistan winds down and the military slims its ranks.
Moran Banai is IAVA's Senior Research Associate in Washington, D.C. She leads IAVA’s research program and works closely with our policy director and legislative staff to define the most urgent issues facing new veterans.