Good news, bad news in jobless rate

Apr. 12, 2014 @ 03:54 PM

It is a sign of the robust health of the Research Triangle area’s economy and the continuing recovery from the Great Recession that unemployment in Durham has dropped to its lowest level in nearly six years.

The metropolitan area’s jobless rate in February was 4.9 percent, nearly hitting the level of 4.8 percent recorded in June 2008. The metro area includes Orange, Chatham and Person counties as well as Durham.

While month-to-month declines can sometimes seem agonizingly incremental, especially to those on the unemployment line, it is truly striking to compare joblessness here with the area’s peak. In early 2010, unemployment in this metro area was 8.4 percent.

Even at that, our rate was lower than the state’s overall and far from rates well into double digits in the state’s hardest hit counties. 

James Kleckley, director of the East Carolina University Bureau of Business Research, underscored our enviable position relative to other areas, and said it bodes well for the future.

“Assuming that the national economy will continue to expand, which I expect, the Durham-Chapel Hill region should remain one of the state’s healthiest and should capture a good share of the jobs that ensue,” Kleckley told The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz.

But even as we applaud the declining unemployment rate -- and rates are generally moving downward across the state -- it’s hard not to acknowledge a troubling factor in the decline. And while that factor is less acute here than in many places, it is not absent.

The labor force is shrinking – down 2 percent from February 2013 to the same month this year.

There may be many reasons for the decline, which is mirrored statewide. But many analysts worry that it is because, faced with months and sometimes years without a job, many people are simply giving up.

The issue becomes a politically charged one. Republicans who engineered cuts to North Carolina’s jobless benefits see in the declining unemployment rates the fulfillment of their belief that generous benefits were encouraging people to shun some jobs in favor of remaining unemployed. Unemployment is dropping, by that analysis, because people are being prodded to get back to work.

Others see the rate falling because of the job-market drop-outs.

“The unemployment rate masks the true plight of joblessness in the state,” Allan Freyer of the left-leaning N. C. Budget and Tax Center wrote last month. Between February 2012 and February 2014, Freyer wrote, “only 48,000 jobless workers moved into employment over the last year. The rest -- another 64,000 workers -- just gave up and dropped out of the labor force, continuing a historically unprecedented contraction in the state’s workforce.”

Ironically, partisans left and right agree that accelerating job growth is needed to boost the state’s still-anemic economy. Stark differences arise over how best to do that.

But finding the right solution is a key to turning dropping unemployment rates into unalloyed reasons for celebration.