Capitol Hill (CNN) - Let's get down to the main question: what the heck is going on with jobs?
Friday confused economists tweeted in question marks as the Labor Department reported both that the unemployment rate plummeted in January (from 9.4 percent to 9 percent) and that job creation barely has a pulse (just 36,000 jobs created, a figure that usually corresponds to an increase in unemployment).
In this week's American Sauce, we are not content to be confused. We look at exactly what's going on with jobs and what's generating these conflicting numbers.
Listen to the podcast here or keep reading for our list of "3 things others missed on jobs," which includes a troubling statistic about our veterans.
First, read the Labor Department jobs report here.
1. Afghan and Iraq War Vet Unemployment Skyrocketing – To cut to the chase here, the report shows that recent war veterans face nearly as much difficulty in finding work as high school dropouts. The unemployment rate for veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars (2001-present) soared to 15.2 percent in January. That's up nearly three points from the already high 12.6 percent of January 2010.
In comparison, the unemployment rate for Americans without a high school degree is not far off – 16.5 percent when not seasonally adjusted. (Figures for veterans were not seasonally adjusted.)
Veterans overall have a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the nation (9.9 percent in January, a slight increase from 9.6 percent last January). But recent war vets by far have the most difficulty finding a job.
In fact, the unemployment rate for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq makes it one of the most struggling groups of adults in the country. Only high school drop outs and African Americans face similarly high unemployment rates as large groups.
What's happening? For now, no one can point to one primary cause. The statistics imply it is not war-related disabilities. As a population, persons with a disability have an unemployment rate of 13.6 percent, significantly lower than the rate for recent veterans.
Experts tell our CNN Pentagon unit that employers may be hesitant to hire veterans out of fear of perceived disabilities, problems with PTSD or other war-related mental issues. They also point out this is part of a sad long-term trend.
But no one can say definitively what is driving it.
2. Hispanics, African-Americans see improvements – This report indicates things are improving, to some degree, for the two ethic/racial with the highest unemployment rates.
Unemployment among blacks or African Americans inched down in January, from 15.8 percent in December to 15.7 percent now. But over the past year, those inches have added up. The unemployment rate for African Americans was 16.4 percent a year ago.
For Hispanics, the improvement is short-term change is more notable. Their unemployment rate slid from 13 percent in December to 11.9 percent in January. Hispanics also saw progress over the past year, but it was smaller than the monthly change. In January 2010, Hispanics had an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, according to the Labor Department. Again, that is in comparison with 11.9 percent now.
3. Why the confusion? – Back to the top of this story, how could a single report show the unemployment rate dropped by whopping (in recent terms) 0.4 percentage points during the same month when the economy created almost no jobs?
The key is that the two statistics come from different surveys.
The unemployment rate is produced by a survey of 60,000 households, asking (among other things) if each person is employed, looking for work or no longer in the workforce. That survey produced the 9.0 percent unemployment rate figure.
The number of jobs created or lost comes from a different tool, a Labor Department survey of some 400,000 business establishments. That's called the "payroll survey". This looks at things like how many people showed up to work in a given week and how many employees were on a business' payroll. That survey concluded that just 36,000 jobs were created in January. Typically, economists believe if fewer than 150,000 jobs are created in a month, the unemployment rate will go up.
Thus, the conflict. A relatively large drop in the unemployment rate but a figure showing so few jobs were created that the unemployment rate should have gone up.
A spokesman for the Labor Department told me that they could not explain the difference, stressing this could be a short-term anomaly. He urged that everyone "wait until next month" to see what trends emerged.
Others, including a well-respected CNN Money colleague, believe the swirl of data indicate there are dynamics swirling underneath the surface of the economy that will soon be visible. They take this as a positive sign, as if the economy is trying to pull itself out of a mud hole and all we see are the bubbles and surface disturbance.
There is one logical explanation for part of the conflicting statistics here: the weather. The storms of January kept thousands, if not millions, of people away from work. It is possible that the payroll survey is underestimating the number of jobs because employers had much of their workforce at home during the week of the survey.
(Note to those pointing to the January population adjustment as a cause: Yes, this could have some affect on the numbers, but not to this extent. See Table C on page 7 of the report.)
–Follow Lisa Desjardins on Twitter: @LisaDCNN