NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The economy added 163,000 jobs in July. Although an improvement over the first quarter, the ranks of the unemployed swelled another 45,000. Near-term prospects for improvement seem slim, given Washington inaction.The unemployment rate rose to 8.3%, while 348,000 workers quit looking for work and were no longer counted in the official jobless tally. In the weakest recovery since the Great Depression, nearly the entire reduction in unemployment since October 2009 has been accomplished through a significant drop in the percentage of adults participating in the labor force -- whether working or looking for work. Growth slowed to 1.5% in the second quarter, as consumers pulled back and the trade deficit in oil and with China continued to drag on demand. The outlook for the second half of the year is not much better. Car sales are stronger than a year ago, but are not likely to improve much further. And housing prices have risen in recent months, but on weak volumes. The July jobs report indicates growth remains slow in the third quarter -- likely in the range of 2.5%. Job gains were fairly evenly spread. Manufacturing added 24,000 jobs. Other big gainers included education, health care, professional services, leisure and hospitality, retail and wholesale trade, and information and communications. Construction lost 1,000 jobs, and federal, state and local governments shed 9,000. Gains in manufacturing production have not instigated stronger improvements in employment, largely because much of the growth is focused in high-value activity. Assembly work, outside the auto patch, remains handicapped by the exchange rate situation with the Chinese yuan.
Factoring in those discouraged adults and others working part time for lack of full-time opportunities, the unemployment rate is 15%. Prospects for substantially lowering the headline unemployment rate are slim because so many folks who left the labor force would likely return if economic conditions improved. The economy would have to add about 13.3 million jobs over the next three years -- about 370,000 each month -- to bring unemployment down to 6%. Growth in the range of 4% to 5% is necessary to accomplish that. Growth is weak and jobs are in jeopardy because temporary tax cuts, stimulus spending, large federal deficits, expensive but ineffective business regulations, and costly health care mandates do not address structural problems holding back dynamic growth and jobs creation -- namely, the huge trade deficit and dysfunctional energy policies. Oil and trade with China account for nearly the entire $600 billion trade deficit. Dollars sent abroad that do not return to purchase U.S. exports are lost purchasing power. Consequently, the U.S. economy is expanding at 2% a year instead of the 5% pace that is possible after emerging from a deep recession and with such high unemployment. Without prompt efforts to produce more domestic oil, redress the trade imbalance with China, relax burdensome business regulations and curb health care mandates and costs, the U.S. economy cannot grow and create enough jobs. Twitter @pmorici1 This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.