This is the season of absolutes, a time for reflecting and rendering judgment. Has it been a year to remember or a year to forget? Are we on the right path, or hopelessly lost? The truth is usually somewhere in the middle, but that doesn’t make provocative copy, and so it is often ignored. While some voices in North Carolina would have you believe that we have finally put the Great Recession in the rear-view mirror, the economic damage lingers. As the two charts below show, a year of generally positive economic performance has not erased the imprint that the Recession left on North Carolina.
There is still a larger percentage of North Carolinians without employment than before the Great Recession. From the start of the millennium through 2007, more than 62% of North Carolinians had participated in the workforce each year. That rate dropped precipitously in 2008, and kept sliding until it hit a low of roughly 58% in 2011. While there have been modest gains in the last few years, the labor market in North Carolina still has not recovered sufficiently to return employment levels to where they were before the financial crisis.
Proponents of the “Carolina Comeback” story point to the fact that North Carolina’s headline unemployment rate has come down over the last year, so what’s the worry? The problem is that many people have such a hard time finding work that they don’t appear as “unemployed” in the official figures. A BTC analysis of labor data indicates that the real unemployment rate is twice the official level once we consider all of the people who are not currently looking for work because job opportunities are too few. To be clear, this is not a tally of people who have retired or gone back to school, but rather an estimate of what the unemployment rate would be if we include all of the people who would otherwise be expected to be in the labor force based on historic figures. Including these missing workers pushes North Carolina’s real unemployment rate to almost 13%, twice the official estimate.
The central point here is that we cannot lose sight of the work that still remains to be done. While there has been a good deal of encouraging economic news this year, there are still far too many North Carolinians for whom the recovery remains a promise unfulfilled.
Stay tuned over the next several days for a series of BTC posts that illuminate the 2014 economic landscape and the challenges that need to be addressed in 2015.