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For Barbara Hairston – and millions of Americans – the past few years have been a harsh introduction to an unpleasant new reality: a deep pool of jobless people in a time of modest hiring.

The national unemployment rate slid from 7.3 percent in August to 7.2 percent in September, hitting its lowest level since late 2008, the government announced in October.

But if the latest unemployment data is a silver lining, Hairston represents the cloud. When it comes to the unemployment rate, Barbara Hairston just doesn’t count.

She moved to Georgia from Arizona about two years ago. She had about two decades of experience as a medical assistant and assumed that with a bit of effort she’d find a position here, perhaps in a hospital, perhaps a lab.

“I had never been unemployed,” said Hairston, 47, said. “I raised four kids working three jobs – I could always find work. Now, I cannot even get an interview.”

Oh, she’s jobless enough, but after two years of fruitless searching, the Tyrone, Ga., resident lately has been taking some time off from the job hunt. And if you are not actively looking for a job, then the government may – accurately – describe you as discouraged, but not as officially unemployed.

That latest jobless figure is based on a survey that estimates 11.3 million Americans as unemployed. But they are only part of the picture. About 2.3 million more people would like jobs and have looked for work in the past 12 months, but not recently.

That includes Danita Finlay Evans. The 34-year-old Atlanta woman stopped looking late last year and started studying to become a certified public accountant.

She had worked for a pharmaceutical company as a bookkeeper with expertise in Medicaid payments when she was laid off in 2011. “I went from $60,000 a year to next to nothing,” she said.

She applied for many jobs, including positions elsewhere in the United States. “Nobody was biting, even though I had follow-up interviews and follow-ups to the follow-ups.”

The jobless rate might be the highest-profile piece of economic data, but economists often say there are better guides to the health of the labor market. For instance, a separate survey of companies showed that the economy added 148,000 positions during the month – fairly modest growth.

Experts also cite something called the participation rate, the ratio between people working and the total working-age population. That rate typically rises when there are lots of jobs and wages are going up. It falls when demand for workers is dropping.

The participation rate peaked at the end of the 1990s boom, then fell. It rose again during the housing-driven boom and crashed at the start of the Great Recession.

Some of the drop in participation is simply demographics, said Bruce Hirsch, labor economist at the Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “Some of it is the aging of the labor force, with some people retiring and some people who lost jobs just not returning to the workforce. But age doesn’t explain all or even most of it.”

More than anything, the falling proportion of working people is caused by weak hiring, he said. “I think it’s the poor job prospects – that is why so many people have stopped looking.”

Monica Morris can testify to the weak market.

She has years of experience as a health care office worker. But her job was eliminated almost a year ago and she has been looking for work since, said Morris, 37, who lives in Decatur, Ga. “I apply and apply and apply.”

It is no comfort, but at least she is still counted as unemployed.

“I can’t afford to give up because I have two kids who depend on me,” she said. “But some days are better than others.”

For Barbara Hairston, the search for a job will resume. She will be counted as a job seeker, but she is determined to work her way to the other side of the calculation.

“I will just keep on applying,” she said. “I have to work.”