Welcome to a new semi-regular feature here at Snark-Infested Waters, where I will occasionally look into claims made by candidates for office.
My goal is not to make any given candidate look good or bad (so kindly save your accusations of bias) but to provide context for statements made over the course of the campaign year. I welcome comments that confirm or refute my findings, and if you hear a politician saying something that sounds a bit suspect, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To christen this feature, I’ll start with a comment made by Thomas F. Keyes, the Sandwich Republican running against Senate President Therese M. Murray (D – Plymouth), at his campaign kick-off event this past weekend. He took a slightly different tack when addressing the old stand-by issues of economic and job growth:
“The incumbent says things are going well because unemployment is at 6.8 percent. That’s nothing to be proud of. Unfortunately, that figure doesn’t account for all of the people who are underemployed. These are individuals who have had to take a lesser job or a job out of their field to make ends meet. Right now, Massachusetts has an underemployment rate of 8.9%. Let me say that again – it is 8.9 percent. We are the highest in the nation. When you combine underemployed and unemployed we have an employment problem of 15.7 percent.”
First, let’s put the unemployment issue into context. On March 8, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced that as of January 2012, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 6.9 percent — slightly higher than the figure Mr. Keyes quoted, but that number has not changed from December 2011 and is the lowest rate since December 2008.
Combine that with the fact the national unemployment rate is currently 8.3 percent, and that Massachusetts is tied for the 16th lowest unemployment rate in the country, things look decent for Massachusetts — decent, but not fantastic.
Now we move on the the “underemployment” claim, and first we need to distinguish between the two definitions of “underemployment” in play here.
The figure Mr. Keyes quoted was from a New Jobs for Massachusetts/Chmura Economics and Analytics study from December 2011, which looked at workers’ potential based on their education and training and compares it to their employment status; a person working one or more level below his level of qualification is considered underemployed.
To provide a simplistic example: if a man with a master’s degree in his chosen field is working a job that only requires a bachelor’s degree, he is underemployed.
The report “does not reflect workers who could be considered underemployed because their salary has dropped more than 30% from its peak, or because they are supervising half or fewer of the people they used to supervise.” In other words, New Jobs for Massachusetts places more weight on what a worker could be doing based on their qualifications rather than their income.
Or the number of hours worked, and that is how the federal government defines underemployment. The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics defines underemployed Americans as people willing and able to work full-time but who work part-time for economic reasons (e.g., they had their hours cut or cannot find full-time work).
For the sake of comparison, we’ll look at the DoL’s “U-6″ standard for measuring unemployment, which includes the unemployed, the underemployed (as per its definition), and all “marginally attached workers,” a category that includes “discouraged workers”.
(Both marginally attached and discouraged workers are defined as people able and willing to work, and who have looked for a job within the preceding 12 months of the data collection but not within the preceding four weeks. The difference is that discouraged workers stopped looking for work specifically because they do not believe there is work available, while marginally attached workers cite any reason for giving up on their job hunting — a fine distinction that is not wholly relevant to this analysis, but is mentioned for sake of presenting complete information.)
According to the DoL, Nevada actually has the highest total unemployment/underemployment rate at 22.7 percent. Massachusetts’ unemployment/underemployment rate as per the U-6 measure is 14.3 percent, which ties it for 33rd place with New York — again, decent but not spectacular, but below Mr. Keyes’ quoted total “unemployment problem” of 15.7 percent.
A recent Gallup poll more closely matches the DoL’s definition for underemployed; Gallup considers someone underemployed if they were totally jobless or were working fewer than 30 hours a week but wanted to work full-time. Based on that criteria, Gallup claimed the national average underemployment rate for 2011 was 18 to 20.9 percent. Massachusetts’ underemployment rate was 15 to 17.9 percent, placing it in the low end of Gallup’s “average” range — a downgrade from 2010, when Massachusetts recorded a below-average underemployment rate.
Once again, by this yardstick Massachusetts is doing fairly well, but not great.
Mr. Keyes’ statement paints a grimmer picture than Sen. Murray’s, which is not surprising since he’s trying to portray the incumbent as ineffectual on job growth and thus bolster his own image, but is his measure a more accurate picture of the state’s job situation?
This depends entirely on whether you regard underemployment as a reflection of one’s job status in terms of full-time versus part-time, as per the DoL and Gallup, or in terms of qualified for A-list work but stuck in a B-list (or lower) job.
Either way, it could be reasonably inferred that an underemployed individual is making less than his full earning potential, and in a worst-case scenario, that means an individual is relying on some form of public assistance and not contributing as much to the very same tax base that supports such programs.
Massachusetts is faring well in a national context and certainly could be doing worse, but it could also be doing better. Economic recovery in the state is still very much a work-in-progress, but historical employment data is showing a steady, long-term trend toward reducing unemployment. We’re on the right track, certainly.
All three studies cited here are valid measures of underemployment, but they share a similar flaw: they do not go into detail about the economics of underemployment. There is no mention of how working below one’s capacity, whether that is measured in hours or credentials, affects one’s income, which plays into any number of related issues. How many underemployed people are resorting to public assistance to make ends meet? How many are able to pay their expenses but cannot indulge in discretionary spending? How many have been forced to simply adopt a less extravagant but perfectly adequate lifestyle? These are questions that deserve answers.
Mr. Keyes brings much-needed attention to the issue of the underemployed. Adding that data to the mix provides a more textured perspective on the state’s and the nation’s job market and efforts in job creation, but Mr. Keyes chose to present numbers that put Massachusetts — and by extension his opponent — in a worse light; two other valid measures indicate that Massachusetts is not as bad off as New Jobs for Massachusetts says it is.
If Mr. Keyes wishes to have an honest discussion about underemployment, he should consider multiple sources of data rather than just those with an immediate political benefit — and should he win the race and find himself in a position to address the issue, he will need to have a complete picture before him if he is going to find the best remedy. It’s in his best political interests and, potentially, the best interests of his constituents to look at all the data.