The troubled State of Working North Carolina

The troubled State of Working North Carolina

- in Fitzsimon File

Republican legislative leaders may be intent on making an absurd constitutional amendment about gay marriage their priority this fall, but the vast majority of people in North Carolina have something else on their minds, jobs and the economy.

It’s not hard to understand why. The state’s unemployment rate is still above ten percent and thousands of state and local government employees are facing layoffs because of the budget cuts made by the General Assembly this summer.

And a new report from the N.C. Budget and Tax Center shows it is actually worse than you think.

“The State of Working North Carolina” puts the economic downturn and the anemic recovery in perspective and explores who is suffering the most in the wake of the Great Recession that officially ended more than two years ago.

The findings are staggering. Total employment in North Carolina was lower in 2010 than it was when the decade began. Other indicators are telling too, like corporate profits which are at the highest percentage of national income since World War II according to data released by the U.S. Department of Commerce in July.

You might be wondering where all that profit is going. Not to workers. The same Commerce Department data shows that employees’ earnings and benefits are at the lowest percentage of national income since 1965.

The report points out that when the recession began in December 2007, North Carolina had more than 4.17 million jobs. After 30 months of job losses, there were 300,000 fewer jobs in the state in July.

And even that understates the problem.

The state’s total job deficit is much higher. It’s just over 502,000 jobs when you combine the total jobs lost and the 198,000 jobs needed because of the state’s population growth since the recession began.

It’s not often reported but one part of North Carolina’s job crisis is that people have continued to move here during the downturn believing they could find work. The state’s population has grown almost five percent since December of 2007.

It doesn’t mean much in the real world that the recession officially ended two years ago. In those 24 months, total jobs in the state increased in only nine.

Things have gotten worse lately because of the thousands of layoffs in public schools, universities, community colleges, and the rest of state government whether the Republican legislative leaders want to acknowledge it or not. The public job losses have more than wiped the small gains in the private sector.

The newly out of work aren’t going to find it easy to land another job. The Budget and Tax Center report says that 48.9 percent of unemployed workers have been without a job for more than six months. That’s a higher percentage of long-term unemployed than the national average.

And all that is just unemployment. Underemployment is another thing altogether. The rate of national underemployment reached 17.4 percent in 2010 and has stayed above 16 percent, which is twice as high as it was before the recession began.

Those are the overall rates. Workers of color have it even worse. The unemployment rate for African-Americans in North Carolina is 17.5. The underemployment rate is 26 percent.

People lucky enough to still have their jobs have fewer benefits. A lower percentage of workers have employer sponsored pensions and there has been a 21 percent drop in the health care benefits on the job.

And the boom that preceded the recession wasn’t a boom for everybody. The report says that the per capita Gross State Product in North Carolina increased in real terms by five percent between 2000 and 2008. But it wasn’t experienced that way—on a per capita basis.

Wealthy families and individuals saw their income grow, while middle class and low-income people saw their overall earnings decline or at best stay the same.

The report also finds that projected employment growth will be in jobs that involves mid-level skills or advanced degrees. More education means lower unemployment.

All this while the demand for programs and services to the unemployed and underemployed were slashed this summer, from Medicaid for their health care to community college classrooms where they could be retrained.

It all adds up to a grim picture that recent state budget and policy decisions have made worse, but that’s where North Carolina find itself as the fall of 2011 approaches.

Legislative leaders ought to cancel their plans to waste time next week on a ridiculous marriage amendment and spend those days instead reading the Budget and Tax Center report and figuring out to respond to it.

It is jobs and public investments North Carolina needs, not pandering to a far-right political base.