Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Defining recession

It is hard not to miss the incessant news on the still undemarked recession and it's impact on our lives. Whatever the current state of the economy nationally, Pittsburgh has a far different perspective on what it means to experience recession. Here is a picture of total unemployment in the region which I typically start with when talking about the state of the economy: Past, Present and Future.

Total Unemployment in the Pittsburgh Region 1970-2005

I have pointed out in the past an interactive tool I was playing with to read the historical trends in the unemployment rate here. Also a work in progress obviously.

I was going to let that picture stand on its own, but there are a few points worth explaining. This may look like Pittsburgh's economic miasma was an intense, but very brief, period decades ago. Several things are worth keeping in mind in taking in what that chart says. One is that the official count of unemployment in the United States is based on a fairly narrow definition of what it means to be unemployed. To be unemployed officially you must be in the labor force. If you are not working, in order to be counted in the labor force you must be actively looking for work. While that big spike in unemployment appears to drop almost as fast as it jumped up, there is no doubt that a lot of that drop represented people giving up on looking for work. Discouraged workers in the region remained long after that total unemployment number dropped rapidly. Another reason unemployment dropped: a large part of the regions youngest, and presumably most adaptable for the future, workers left the region quickly as they saw their economic prospects fading here. It has taken a long time for the region to overcome that alone. And as bad as those overall numbers were, the numbers for specific places within the region are even worse. Beaver County for example would peak at 28% unemployment in the early 1980's, a level most states would never reach during the depression.

Also, consider also how different the labor force was decades ago. Most of the jobs that were lost were in households where there was just one earner, or at least one main wage earner. So when that job went away and unemployment compensation ran out, back then households were more likely to be left with virtually no source of income compared to the situation today where most households have more than one wage earner.... more than likely multiple wage earners in different industries that are less likely to laid off simultaneously.

If that is not enough, realize also that the jobs here were very concentrated in manufacturing and steel and most of the workers who were losing their jobs then had spent their entire careers in a single occupation. What that meant was that most had few other skills that could be adapted quickly to other jobs and occupations in town. Given that the job losses were concentrated in those same occupations, most who were losing their jobs back then would never go back to mills ever again.

Add it all up and things were bad in a way that has not been replicated in the region since that time. Maybe Pittsburgh could paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: Recession. We know recession. This is no recession. (or at least I would add 'yet').


Anonymous Frank said...

This article reminds me of one of my favorite modern-day maxims:

"Check yourself before you wreck yourself."

Thanks for the article--perspective is an important but often undervalued thing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 12:02:00 PM  

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