Exile on Jones Street: Happy talk amid a spotty recovery

0
25

by Kirk Ross

 

Sometime today (Wednesday), you’ll probably start hearing reports on the local unemployment rates and, if you live in the Triad, Asheville, Charlotte and the Triangle, chances are there’ll be another glimmer of good news.

But if you live somewhere else in this great state of ours, the news may not be so great. And if you’ve lived for a long time you’re probably pretty used to it.

The recovery in North Carolina is spotty, focused in metropolitan areas and doing best along the I-85 Corridor. But in places where the manufacturing sector walked off a cliff at some point in the late 20th Century, there just isn’t all that much to recover.

Every town along the blue highways of North Carolina has yet to figure out way to halt a decline that started when the mill shut down. In the more rural stretches, there’s no longer a decent paying job to travel to, and the equation of gas prices, plus a long haul, plus service-industry wages equals constant struggle.

When I hear talk from on high about how manufacturing is coming back, I think about the people I met in these places where Sunbeam and Hanesbrands and Brunswick closed. They know the deal. It’s not coming back. Not like it was. Nothing is like it was.

The reality is that at best manufacturing is treading water.

Several weeks ago I interviewed the economic-development director for Graham County, a mountain county that has had the highest or second-highest unemployment rate for the last several years. The unemployment rate in Graham County went from 6.8 percent in November 2007 to 23.6 percent in November 2010.

The county had lost not just jobs but people, and part of the reason its unemployment rate had come down was that folks had either dropped off the rolls or moved to somewhere with better prospects. Since November 2007 the county’s labor force has dropped from roughly 4,700 to 3,700.

The economic-development director said the strategy In Graham County has been pretty straightforward: Try to support small businesses and do anything possible to keep the last major employer open.

Last week that employer, Stanley Furniture, announced the closing of its Robbinsville plant. About 400 people will lose their jobs, more than 10 percent of the county’s labor force.

Keep in mind that it only starts there. We mostly hear about the ripple effect of job creation, but it cuts both ways. The new coffee shop in downtown Robbinsville was counting on those customers.

Meanwhile my inbox is filling up with positive, upbeat emails touting every hiring announcement and new factory. Along with enthusiastic quotes on the Carolina Comeback, they usually tell of another 20 or 40 hires and plant expansions that may one day/someday add another couple hundred.

Yes, we need to celebrate our successes, but this obsession with single-digit advances in a state of nearly 10 million is a little unsettling, as is the fact that at some point last spring the state decided to stop publishing monthly updates on major plant closings and layoffs.

The relentless need to stay sunny on job numbers is reaching absurd levels. Despite clear evidence that the number of jobs in the state is heading south, the McCrory administration keeps talking about the declining unemployment rate.

This in part because to recognize that the labor participation rate is taking a troubling nosedive busts the notion that kicking people off the unemployment rolls will inspire them to go out and get jobs.

Officially, the state unemployment rate dropped to 6.7 percent in March. But when you start looking at people who are long-term unemployed and have stopped looking, people who are employed part-time but want to work full time, people want to work but are discouraged — the so-called U6 unemployment rate — the rate almost doubles.

Still, despite the high numbers of unemployed and underemployed citizens and the fact that the state led the country in job losses last month, the administration took a victory lap. Which is a little like looking at 1/4 and just seeing the 1. There are numerators and denominators and they both mean something.