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The Invisible Population: What the Unemployment Rate Doesn’t Show

Unemployment's down, but accounting for penal growth, the black-white employment gap's significantly wider than it has been since 1980.


The unemployment rate is one of the key barometers of the American economy. Its recent decline from 8.1 to 7.8 percent in September—its lowest level since President Obama took office in January 2009—is consistent with claims of an economic recovery and with other data that show evidence of new job creation, increases in hours worked among the employed, and increases in wages. While this drop is good news—and likely gave Obama a boost at the polls—as optimistic as the new numbers may seem, the data used to construct the unemployment rate and other measures of economic progress don't include some of the most economically disadvantaged Americans: the 2.3 million people housed in federal, state, and local prisons and jails.

The unemployment rate is a relatively simple measure of labor surplus, representing the fraction of the total labor force that is not employed, but looking for work. It's also useful for employers determining wages, policymakers setting unemployment benefit levels, or politicians seeking a single number to characterize the health of the American economy. However, it doesn't capture underemployment, other forms of labor inactivity, or unpaid labor. It also doesn’t tell us anything about the employment prospects of some groups of the population most economically at-risk.

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What You Won't Hear in the Presidential Debates: Facing the 'School-to-Prison' Pipeline

Most national surveys don't account for prison inmates, a fact that results in a misrepresentation of the progress black Americans are making.


During the first presidential debate both President Obama and Governor Romney referenced plans for improving America's education system. After all, an educated workforce has long been viewed as the engine for America’s economic development and prosperity and education is commonly understood as an important path to social mobility. However, the candidates aren't talking about a key cause and consequence of school failure for children in America's most disadvantaged communities: the "school-to-prison" pipeline.

The "school-to-prison" pipeline characterizes the increasingly tight connection between educational failure, limited employment opportunities, and the historic growth in America's prisons and jails, which have become a repository for many of our high school dropouts and conceal the extent of educational disadvantage—particularly for black males—from public view.

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The Five Best Projects from the Gates Foundation's Education Technology Competition

Here are our five favorite projects from the Gates Foundation's education technology grant competition.

On Tuesday the Gates Foundation announced 19 winners of the second phase of its Next Generation Learning Challenges grant competition. The NGLC's priority is using technology to improve college readiness among low-income students, and what makes these new grantees noteworthy is that they're working on targeting the critical seventh- through ninth-grade years—well before students can either drop out or fall too far behind in higher level math and science. Each project is also aligned with the new Common Core Standards, which are all about developing higher-order thinking skills. While all 19 grantees are noteworthy, here are five that really stand out:

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