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Mind the gap Add to ...

Canada's monthly unemployment statistics have a significant gap that must be filled. They do not reveal the number of people whose employment-insurance benefits have expired and who are still out of work.

The regular labour-force numbers from Statistics Canada are difficult to interpret at the best of times. Because they are based on a survey of about 53,000 households and extrapolated to represent the entire economy, they tend to be very volatile and include a wide margin of error.

A crucial further problem, particularly in the current environment, is that the unemployment figures count only those who are collecting employment insurance. People who have dropped off the unemployment rolls - and are thus no longer included in the numbers - may have found new jobs, but they may also have simply exhausted their benefits. That shifts them into a much more harrowing situation where they are likely facing dire financial straits and may be forced to consider welfare. But we have no way of knowing if that is the case.

In the United States, unemployment numbers are much more comprehensive. Not only are new jobless claims reported weekly, they also include details on continuing claims and exhaustion rates.

This is not just an issue of concern to economists interested in crunching the numbers to make their latest projections. It is about vital data that can direct governments and social agencies in their design of policies and their preparations to deliver resources to those most in need. Without these numbers, for example, no one knows how many people may be forced to seek welfare in the short term - a key issue for the provinces and municipalities that fund and administer the welfare system.

Data on exhaustion rates would also be essential in informing the political debate over how to make long-term reforms of employment insurance. We need to know how well the system works in severe economy-wide downturns, before we decide how to change it.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada told The Globe and Mail last week it is working with Statscan to explore ways of publishing more current information on the number of people who have exhausted their EI benefits, instead of the two-year-old data now available. This is long overdue, though it may be too late to formulate a policy that would save the most vulnerable workers in the current downturn from falling through the cracks.

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