What’s the real deal with jobs in Maine?

In recent weeks, there has been a tit-for-tat about jobs playing out in the Maine media.  The opening salvo came from Doug Rooks writing in the (Lewiston) Sun Journal that zero jobs had been added to Maine’s economy this year.  This was followed by a piece in the Bangor Daily News (and other newspapers) by Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner George Gervais highlighting Maine’s drop in unemployment since the beginning of the year.  The most recent commentary came from John Bell in the Portland Press Herald acknowledging that while Maine’s unemployment rate has decreased, it has not dropped as much as the national unemployment rate.

That’s a lot to follow.

The real story is that according to data available from the Maine Department of Labor, Maine has lost 4,800 jobs since January 2011.  This comes at a time when the LePage Administration has proposed cutting health care for 65,000 Maine people and the loss of an additional 4,400 jobs according to MECEP analysis.

Yes, Maine’s unemployment rate has fallen from 7.6% to 7.3% since January 2011, but it is also true that, in relative terms, our performance doesn’t compare as favorably to many other states.  Of course, these numbers say very little about the number of people who are underemployed (working at jobs that pay significantly less than their skills would normally get in a period of “full employment” or working reduced hours even though they want full-time work).

How can Maine simultaneously shed jobs and see a drop in employment?  The answer – more people have left the labor force.

In January 2011, Maine had 698,834 people in the labor force compared to 694,834 in October 2011 (see Excel spreadsheet entitled Statewide 1977-2011).  Admittedly these figures are seasonally adjusted and the October figures may be revised when the November numbers are released, but based on comparable data, Maine’s labor force decline runs counter to what has occurred nationally.

At a time when an increasing number of both working and unemployed people are struggling to make ends meet, it is irrational to cut programs and services that can help them stay healthy, access child care, develop new skills, and be ready to capitalize on new opportunities when the economy starts to rebound.  This is especially true when one considers that on a dollar for dollar basis, the economic benefit of tax cuts, particularly for wealthier households, does far less to promote jobs and broadly shared prosperity than public investments in health care, child care, education, roads, and bridges.

Now is no time to cut and run on Maine people or our economy.  Instead, we must act to ensure, not imperil, current and future prosperity.  We can begin by  checking the numbers to make sure we understand the whole story.