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It's time to bring Columbia back to economic equilibrium

Friday, June 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:20 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 18, 2009

Numbers don't lie, but politicians use numbers.

Things are bad, and the government can only do so much to soften the blow. Vice President Joe Biden told a news conference last Friday that the May unemployment numbers in the U.S. have reached 9.4 percent, a one-half percent increase from April and the worst in more than 25 years.

Not a lie, but not quite accurate. It is something I label “The Rule of the Ridiculous.” Using a number so large or so small, it makes your argument look the best.

What the unemployment numbers are not telling is as important as what they say. The 9.4 percent counts only those who have applied for and are receiving unemployment insurance. It does not include the more than the 800,000 Americans who have just stopped looking, aka “discouraged workers.” It does not include the women and men who are "underemployed," taking part-time jobs or working in jobs that they are overqualified to hold.

Earlier Friday, Keith Hall, the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, told the Congressional Joint Economic Committee during the May Unemployment Report that inclusion of the underemployed and discouraged workers raises the rate to 16.4 percent, the highest since 1994, when these statistics began:

Yes, consumer confidence is increasing, and we have turned the corner to the return of a better economy. However, the opening statement of the committee's acting chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., reminded us that one in four unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than six months and that the average American has been unemployed for just under three months.

Missouri’s April unemployment rate was 8.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that figure does not include discouraged and underemployed citizens. If included, the number could be 15.8 percent or higher. The state does not track the discouraged or underemployed.

Boone County is somewhat insulated from the terrors of the economy. We are, after all, in the middle of Middle America, 100-miles from anywhere.

The key word here is “somewhat.” The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center reported Boone County’s unemployment was 4.7 percent for April, yet the central Missouri region reported 6.8 percent. Again, not including the discouraged and underemployed.

MERIC also reports that 80 percent of the careers expecting the largest growth in Boone are in post-secondary education and the high tech arenas. Bringing up the rear is food manufacturing and production. Low wages and most likely few, if any, benefits.

Last week, I urged J. Mike Brooks, the new director of Regional Economic Development, Inc., to look toward an expansion of blue-collar employment along with white-collar and professional job growth. I do not mean service or retail jobs paying just above minimum wage, which are most likely part-time and have no benefits. The average wage in Boone County is $29,782. For a family of four, 150 percent of the poverty rate (a standard for many benefits) is $33,075. Try making ends meet at $16.00 an hour. Many in retail make less than $10.00 an hour and are part-time.

Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, is also responsible here, along with the Chamber’s Board of Directors. For my May 21 article, I asked Mr. Laird what the Chamber could do for ailing businesses. In short, not a whole lot. How about increasing business in Columbia? Same answer.

The mission statement for the Chamber is “ … to lead our community, drive commerce in our region and advance community and regional collaborations … ” For REDI it is to, “ … act as a catalyst for new business recruitment, existing business retention and expansion, and new business start-ups in Columbia/Boone County.” The City of Columbia does not have a mission statement.

In my six years in Columbia, I have seen little evidence of commerce or business unless it is involved in the “Big Three”: post-secondary education, medical work or insurance. We have lost the blue-collar jobs that are so important to keeping the engine of the economy fired. It is time to fire up that boiler. For REDI and the Chamber, it is time to achieve your missions.

David Rosman is an award winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. He welcomes your comments at ProfDave1011@netscape.net.

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