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When people like Jerry Lobill and Chuck Engel read about the U.S. economy, they grind their teeth at the seemingly endless stream of good news, realizing it masks their personal hardships.

Both know their story isn't told by the nation's unemployment rate, at a 29-year low of 4.2 percent in March, not by the 10-week stretch of weekly jobless benefit claims beneath 300,000, the longest since 1973.

And they know they're not alone in bridling at the picture painted by the broad brush of such statistics, and the political rhetoric that often accompanies them.

"These economics indicators ... mean wider opportunity and a better chance for millions of Americans," President Clinton declared at a news conference earlier this month, before turning to the situation in Yugoslavia.

Such talk angers Lobdill, 61, of Forth Worth, Texas.

"When I hear Clinton crowing about that stuff ... I'm just totally disgusted," he said.

In 1991, Lobdill, a chemical engineer and applied scientists, lost a job of 25 years at the Fortune 500 defense contractor, Tracor Inc. In the wrenching industry shakeout after the Cold War, he and his family moved first to Syracuse, N.Y., and then to suburban Washington so he could take jobs that lasted, respectively, seven months and two years.

After four more years of making ends meet by substitute teaching high-school science and math and taking odd jobs, Lobdill again is working in applied science for a firm that makes underwater acoustic sensors - but at a third of his former salary.

He takes issue in particular with the use of the unemployment rate as a proxy for the nation's economic health, because it makes no distinction between a chemical engineer working full-time earning $100,000 and a chemical engineer tossing newspapers.

For his part, Engel, 51, of Daytona Beach, Fla., is skeptical of the significance of vigorous employment and income growth in real estate. After the growth of large discount chain stores ended his nearly 30-year career selling and servicing office machines, he joined many other layed-off workers in thinking a real estate license might be the answer.

But in real estate, the top 10 percent of sales people rack up 90 percent of commissions, he said.

"It takes years to build a career in this field." he said, "What do you suppose the other 90 percent of the people that make 10 percent of the earnings make? ... It has not made me even minimum wage for the time I put in last year."

The headline unemployment rate in March masked other disparities: Blacks at 8.1 percent and whites at 3.6 percent; teen-agers at 14.3 percent and adults 25 years or older at 3.1 percent; high-school dropouts at 6.1 percent and college graduates at 1.9 percent.

Rates for metropolitan areas in February ranged from 19.8 percent in the farming community of Visalia, Calif., to 1.1 percent in the college town of Charlottesville, Va.

Perhaps a more telling measure of economic health is the underemployment rate, at 7.9 percent in March. It includes not only jobless people looking for work, but jobless people too discouraged to look and part-timers who want full-time work.

And even that fails to account for movement down the economic scale by people like Engel and Lobdill.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-learning Washington think tank, job losers in the 1980s and 1990s suffered on average a 14 percent pay cut in their next job. Nearly 29 percent lost health benefits.

And even as more people get hired, more are getting fired. Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., the Chicago job placement firm, reported more than 450,000 publicly announced job cuts in the six months ended in March - record for the 1990s.

"Companies today have to make cuts to satisfy Wall Street," said John A. Challenger, the firm's chief executive. "It's the 90s imperative."

It's conventional wisdom that Clinton - whose 1992 campaign operated under the unofficial slogan, "It's the economy, stupid!" - can do no wrong in the public's eye because the economy is thriving.

But his would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore, will need to be especially careful when he talks about the economy's strength, lest he alienate voters.

"Because Bill Clinton is perceived as in touch with the average American experience, he can get away with a lot," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "A politician like Al Gore will pay a lot higher price for saying, "The economy is good, because people already think he's out of touch with their pain."



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