According to the official numbers, things are slightly better in Lincoln County today than they were just three years ago. But it doesn’t feel that way.
The official unemployment rate for Lincoln County is 10.48 percent. That isn’t an acceptable level, but it’s much better than the 14.1 percent average unemployment we saw during 2009.
Despite the slightly improved statistic, the local economy doesn’t seem very healthy to those of us living in it.
Small business owners speak of a constant struggle to stay afloat. Charitable groups describe surging demand for assistance while donations and other resources dry up. Those who do advertise job openings become inundated with applicants hungry for work. Those seeking jobs wait and wait, as hope slowly dies.
The unemployment rate is simply the wrong number, a misleading figure that doesn’t tell the whole story, much less capture the daily despair with which many people in Lincoln County are struggling.
Here’s a different number: The average number of people employed in Lincoln County for the first seven months of this year was 34,353, according to data from the N.C. Department of Commerce. That’s about 43.3 percent of the total Lincoln County population, based on recent population estimates and population growth trends, making it the lowest percentage of the population that’s working in this county since these records have been kept, probably the lowest since the Great Depression.
Our jobs market not only hasn’t recovered in Lincoln County; it’s reaching its lowest point and could go even lower. The month-to-month levels for these numbers have shown some upticks this year, but have fallen back in the most recent months.
Let’s try to get some historical perspective about what this means, what’s been happening and why these different statistics point to different things.
Our workforce in Lincoln County — the combined total of people working and of people officially counted as looking for work — has averaged about 38,485 this year, about 48.3 percent of the total population.
Unemployment rates represent the percentage of that workforce that isn’t working, but is looking for work. Because of those definitions, the unemployment rate is already looking at less than half of the people in the county.
We can’t really talk about the total population that’s not counted in the workforce as “unemployed,” though they certainly aren’t “employed.” Most of those people aren’t eligible for work, don’t need to work or don’t want to work. This includes children, retirees and homemakers.
However, those not included in the workforce also includes a rapidly growing number of people who have given up, temporarily or permanently, and are no longer trying to find jobs. This is the hidden mass of desperation in Lincoln County, and probably much of the rest of the country.
We can’t easily count people in this category. But we can make an attempt by looking at some other numbers.
Lincoln County’s population has risen consistently since 1990. The workforce ought to be growing with the population, which is what happened through 2007 when it peaked. But it’s slipped every year since then, even though the population has continued to grow. That’s why this recession is so different from previous ones.
Some of the highest numbers for population participating in the workforce came in the mid-1990s, when our yearly averages were at least 55 percent every year, with the percent of residents actually employed only slightly below.
Those numbers dipped a bit during the economic turmoil of the bursting dot-com bubble and the 9/11 attacks, a period that also saw the closing of several local mills.
But the national, state and local economies all rebounded in the mid-2000s, with our local numbers clearly peaking in 2007. Then the housing bubble burst. By late 2008, the closely related banking disasters plunged our economy into the current recession.
Unlike previous recessions, when our workforce participation numbers continued to climb along with the population, and only the percentages of those working dipped slightly, this time all numbers have dropped significantly and steadily. The one exception is the official unemployment rate, which is why it’s the most misleading indicator for our situation.
We have about 3,500 fewer people working in Lincoln County than we did in 2007, even though our estimated population is up by nearly 6,800 during the same period. Some of those new people are children, retirees and disabled folks who aren’t going to be part of the workforce anyway. But a lot of those leaving the workforce are people who have given up.
Presumably, if 54.8 percent of Lincoln County residents were happily employed or wanted to be in 2007, then about that same percent would love to be employed today, even though only about 43.3 percent of them are.
Based on this, we might reasonably calculate a real unemployment picture, including those who have dropped off the radar in both the ranks of the jobless and the total workforce. Adding those to the people already being counted as unemployed, we would find a real unemployment rate in Lincoln County of about 21 percent.
In other words, about 1 in 5 people in Lincoln County who would like to have a job can’t find one and may have given up looking. Countless more are likely qualified for much better jobs than they can find, but have to take whatever is available under current conditions.
These statistics have no political affiliation or ideology. Our county government, state legislature and U.S. House of Representatives are controlled by conservative Republicans. Our city government, governor’s mansion, U.S. Senate and White House are controlled by liberal Democrats. There’s plenty of blame to go around.
But in this political season, Lincoln County needs to understand exactly what the problem is. Then we can start thinking about electing the right folks to fix it.
Frank Taylor is managing editor of the Lincoln Times-News