WASHINGTON - A bleak jobs report suggests the recovery from the Great Recession will be longer and bumpier than many economists had envisioned.
Most economists say job growth should strengthen later this year as gasoline prices drop further and the economy recovers from the effects of natural disasters in the U.S. and abroad. But the recovery is starting to weaken 17 months before the 2012 election, which could hurt President Obama's re-election prospects.
The unemployment rate in May inched up to 9.1 percent from 9 percent, the Labor Department said yesterday; when Obama took office, it was 7.8 percent.
The Conference Board, a business research group, predicts the rate will be 8.5 percent at the end of next year. That would mean Obama would face a higher unemployment rate than any president running for re-election since World War II.
Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney pitched himself as an alternative with the experience to turn around the struggling economy.
"Three years into his term, we have more news that unemployment has ticked up again," Romney said at a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire, a day after he formally joined the GOP presidential contest.
"The recovery has not been derailed, but it's slow," said Michelle Meyer, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "We're still in a muddle-through period."
Only 54,000 jobs were created in May, the fewest in eight months. By contrast, an average of 220,000 jobs were created in each of the previous three months. Private companies hired only 83,000 workers in May - the fewest in nearly a year - while state and local governments cut 30,000 jobs.
The Dow Jones industrial average finished down 97 points, its third straight loss. The Dow, Standard & Poor's 500 and Nasdaq composite have all declined in each of the last five weeks, the longest losing streak since mid-2008.
Several chronic problems are weighing on the economy. Home prices are still falling. The average worker's pay isn't keeping up with inflation. Cutbacks in spending by state and local governments are contributing to slower growth, even in the private sector. And members of Congress are preparing to cut spending.
Gas prices climbed to nearly $4 a gallon this spring. They've since declined to about $3.79 and are expected to fall more, possibly freeing consumers to spend more on goods such as cars, appliances and furniture. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.
But even if gas prices dip, they'll likely remain high and continue to squeeze consumers and the industries that depend on them. For example, companies that rely heavily on motorists - like hotels and restaurants - added far fewer jobs in May than in April.
Even economists who think hiring will pick up don't expect it to grow very fast.
Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, expects employers to add about 150,000 jobs a month for the next few months. Up to 300,000 new jobs a month would be needed to significantly drive down the unemployment rate.
Among the deepest job cuts were those in local governments, which slashed 28,000 last month, the most since November. Nearly 18,000 were in education. Cities and counties have cut jobs for 22 straight months. Since September 2008, 446,000 jobs have vanished.
State and local government job losses are likely to persist. Though state tax revenue is recovering, states face rising costs for Medicaid and other services. And localities rely on property tax revenue, which will likely continue to shrink because home prices in most areas are still sinking.