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A non-economist looks at unemployment
Hill Jack
Sen. Jack Hill

We don’t pay too much attention to the unemployment rate normally, maybe being vaguely aware of the trend down or up, but not much else. The injection of the rate as a signal of failure of the current administration caused me to want to see what economists were saying about Georgia’s economy and how they view unemployment statistics.

Turns out, they don’t put much stock in them either because they use a number of measurements both to evaluate where the economy is and to make judgments about where it is going.

I do remember something an Office of Planning and Budget official in the Miller administration told me one time when I mentioned to her a mysterious unemployment number that didn’t make sense. She said, “We don’t put much stock in unemployment numbers when looking for a direction in the economy on which to base revenue projections Frankly, we find food stamp applications a better guide of how the economy is going than unemployment rate.”

Remembering that conversation, I decided if I was going to evaluate Georgia’s economic situation in light of the unemployment numbers, maybe that was a good place to start.

In Georgia, the food stamp program is called SNAP and I asked for a review of numbers of recipients month by month for the past six years. Some smoothing out is required because of the backlog of applications earlier this year, but the graph for 2008-14 shows a rise in recipients in 2009-12 peaking at 1,972,221 recipients in November 2012 and a slow decline since then.

A 12-month average ending in July 2014 shows an average of 1.819 million recipients per month, which is a 7.1 percent average decrease from the preceding 12 months average. So there is a marked decline in food stamp recipients since the midst of the recession.

Economists don’t agree with unemployment index indicator
Secondly, I wanted to understand what economists who track economic activity regularly were saying about the unemployment rate. Dr. Rajeev Dhawan, a really smart guy with a great sense of humor, is director of the Georgia State Economic Forecasting Center. He presents a quarterly report, and although I missed it in person this year, the Atlanta Constitution titled the article on his report “Ga. Growth is Expected to Continue.”

Dr. Dhawan predicts 74,100 more jobs will be created in Georgia this year, with one-fifth of them considered “premium” well-paying jobs and expects the state to add 83,600 jobs in 2015. What was interesting was the quote in the AJC from Dr. Dhawan on unemployment rates. According to the AJC, he states that “unemployment is the most misleading statistic to measure the health of the economy.” He stated he pays more attention to measurements like income, job creation and state tax collections, according to the same news story.

Other economists don’t see Georgia’s economic picture tied to the unemployment rate as well.  Wells Fargo’s Economics Group puts out a state-by-state analysis of economic activity and just published one entitled “Georgia Economic Outlook: September 2014.” The opening paragraph begins: “Georgia’s economy essentially kept pace with the nation during 2013, with real GDP rising 1.8 percent during the year.

“Employment growth was also largely in line with the nation and that trend appears to have continued into 2014.”

The report outlines the resurgence of the carpet industry with expansions in north Georgia, the continued growth of aerospace jobs, demand for industrial space remaining strong and a section entitled “Factories are humming again.”

The report notes the continued growth of the film industry in the state, recovery of housing, and lists growth of nonfarm employment at 2.1 percent over the past year. It closes with this quote: “The state’s jobless rate is now one of the highest in the nation, a fact that seemingly flies in the face of common sense. We suspect that the high jobless rate reflects the return of job seekers to the workforce in anticipation of better employment opportunities.”

Population growth above national average — people hunting jobs?
Since 2010, Georgia is growing at a rate outpacing the country, some 3.1 percent or about 100,000 per year.  (2010 — 9.687 million versus 2013 — 9.992 million). Atlanta’s metro area was just named the seventh-fastest growing metro area, growing by some 52,700 people in just one year, from April 2013 to April 2014.

I would submit that Georgia is still seen as the place to go to get a job and the influx of population is holding up unemployment numbers even as more and more jobs are being created. In other words, the denominator keeps increasing.

Lastly, another Labor Department statistic that is pretty important is the U-6 or underemployment rate.  Looking back over time, from a mid-recession high of about 17.9 percent, the rate has steadily declined to a level of under 14 percent in mid-2013, the last date I could find. Seems to support the theories above.

My conclusion: Georgia has made substantial progress in four years
In January 2011, when  Gov. Deal took office, the state unemployment rate was 10.10 percent, DOR revenue was less than $15 billion and the HOPE  program was a couple of years away from eating up hundreds of millions of reserves and being broke.

Today, even if the unemployment rate really is 7.9 percent, and that is debatable as a measurement of economic health, that improvement is over 2 points lower than 10.10 percent level in 2011 — a 27.8 percent decline in under four years. And through it all, Georgia has maintained its AAA bond rating, until recently, one of only eight states to do so.

In Tattnall County, I hear people say, “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.” On almost any measurement you can make, the state has made great progress under Gov. Deal…from where we were…. and the fact the opposition is hanging on a flimsy unreliable statistic like the unemployment rate shows they probably know it too.

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