I track a lot of economic data each month, some of which I write about in my column in the Savannah Morning News. Usually, though, I’m just checking so that I can keep track of broader trends and don’t make any specific mention in print.

Anyone can find some of the key employment data through this page on the Georgia Department of Labor website. The December 2010 data, some of which was posted in the last 24 hours, was mixed.

Statewide, initial claims for unemployment insurance fell in December 2010 to 75,635 from 100,896 in December 2009. That’s really good news. It’s not great news, however, since we’re still at a level of claims that one would normally associate with an economy in recession. The Savannah metro area numbers fell from 3,119 in December 2009 to 2,697 in December 2010. Again, that’s some marginal improvement (not nearly as good on a % basis as the rest of the state) but still far too high for an economy that’s allegedly 18 months into a recovery. It’s also worth noting that unemployment claims and overall employment are extremely seasonal. December is a bad month for unemployment claims even in a good year, and January is too.

I like looking at initial claims for unemployment insurance primarily because it’s a hard number, not an estimate like much of the rest of the data compiled by the Dept. of Labor.

In terms of the total # of jobs statewide, the DOL estimates that Georgia lost 7,800 jobs from December 2009 to December 2010. The Savannah metro area is estimated to have gained 1,700 jobs, to take us from 150,800 at the end of 2009 to 152,500 in December 2010. The state’s small loss and the local area’s small gain are both almost negligible. The local gain, assuming the estimate is correct, might be just barely enough to make up for natural growth of the population. These numbers are not adjusted for seasonal patterns, but the estimate of the state unemployment rate IS seasonally adjusted. It stands at 10.2%, down from 10.3% for December 2009.

OK, if the state lost a few thousand jobs and the unemployment rate nevertheless went down, even as the population is supposedly growing, that means that thousands more Georgians simply left the labor force in the last year — they retired, gave up, went back to school, or maybe left the state. While it’s great for individuals to improve their skills through more education, this is bad news for the state economy.

Employment is generally considered a lagging indicator of economic recovery — in other words, jobs are one of the last areas where a recovery is evident. That’s the normal interpretation, but unemployment is so high right now, and measures of underemployment (e.g., someone working far less than they want or for lower wages than their qualifications would warrant) are also so high that we are obviously seeing an impact on consumer sales, new household creation, and other factors that would normally be considered leading or coincident economic indicators.

Given even a slow rate of population growth and assuming a fairly robust recovery, it will be years before we approach full employment (often considered something under 5% unemployment). As the economy rebounds, we’ll see more people enter or re-enter the labor force, which will make things even tougher in terms of bringing down the unemployment rate.

I’m one who thinks that the bailouts, however sloppily done they were, under Bush and Obama saved millions of jobs in the country. I also think the stimulus (ARRA), mainly through propping up state budgets so cuts could be forestalled, saved countless jobs. How bad might unemployment have gotten without these government intrusions? The national unemployment rate, now at 9.4%, could easily have been 15% or more, I think. Obviously, that’s not a number I can prove.

I’m actually sympathetic to the idea that we would have been better off in the long run if we had let the economy collapse — the banks, the major car companies, state funding for education, etc. — but the short run consequences would have been horrible — and literally intolerable. As a true depression kicked in, even skeptics of government involvement would have insisted that something be done.

Ok, so why did the Obama economic team say when they took office that passing the stimulus would keep unemployment from rising above 8%? I don’t know, but the most obvious reason is simply that they did not grasp how bad the downward spiral of late 2008 really was. It was also one of the great PR errors of our time — even if they thought they could keep the rate to 8%, imagine how much smarter they would have looked if they’d pessimistically suggested 10%? It’s also worth noting that Christina Romer, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, originally fought for a $1.2 trillion stimulus package, far more than the package that eventually passed, which would have likely kept employment lower than what we saw.

I wish I were more confident on the jobs front, but there are other downsides for Georgia in particular. I don’t think we’ll ever have a good handle on the number of undocumented Latino workers who came to the state in the boom years, but they filled houses and apartments and mobile homes. They ate out, and they bought gas, bread, and other staples, in addition to more expensive items like cars and electronics. I suspect that a huge number of those immigrants have left the state with the collapse of the construction industry — that would help explain the precipitous drop in consumer spending in the state from peak to trough. That might also account for the shrinking workforce that I noted above. Some might legitimately argue that decreased competition for jobs is good news, but a declining or stagnant population of workers obviously has broadly negative implications too.

I’ve been especially frustrated as a columnist because for years I watched state and local leaders, time and time again, try to put the best face on our employment numbers rather than admit how bad they were and try to do something substantive. Governor Nathan Deal has all sorts of ideas of how to lure business to the state, but the state has dithered too long on this issue — and the budget cuts he is proposing will in the short run hurt the employment picture more than they will help.

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