From the left and right, politicians are spouting suspect information about how great things are economically, or about what a frightful state we’re in. As usual, the truth is more likely found in metrics than rhetoric, so here are some figures to help understand how Kansas and its workers are faring this Labor Day.
Jobless rate: The Kansas unemployment rate in July was 7.2%, up from 3.1% in July 2019.
COVID-19 put a lot of people out of work in Kansas and across the country. Just as the pandemic hit some geographic areas hard and at different times, the disease also struck some parts of the economy more severely than others.
That’s not just in terms of the kind of business, but also the kind of worker, according to economic analyses. Higher-paid, white-collar workers were more likely to keep their jobs, as they transitioned to working at home instead of offices. Lower-paid workers were more likely to lose their jobs entirely, or to have their hours severely reduced.
Put another way: Workers most in need of their next paycheck were the most likely to lose them.
Wages: Because higher-paid workers were more likely to keep their jobs, wage growth appears higher than it likely would in normal times, at least on the national level.
According to the federal data, the national, average, hourly wage in June had increased 4.4% for the year. In Kansas, the figure was 0.7%.
Size of labor force: This is a metric that Kansans should be watching carefully.
It has been worrisome for a decade, as the Great Recession forced many workers out of the state or out of the workforce.
The July figure for Kansas was 1,490,796, up slightly from 1,486,033 in July 2019.
That means about 1.49 million Kansans were working or actively looking for work in July. But 10 years ago, it was 1,500,087.
Kansas struggled to build and grow its workforce after the Great Recession ended. Solid growth wasn’t seen until 2018 and 2019. It’s a promising sign that the current recession hasn’t reduced the workforce from a year ago.
But more telling signs will come in the next six to 12 months — if the nation can get the pandemic under control and end special economic relief programs.
Economic strength: A recent study by the online information site 24/7 Wall St. ranked states based on several factors, including economic growth over five years, poverty rates and unemployment.
Kansas ranked 14th, behind neighboring Nebraska and ahead of Texas.
The study also factored in states’ comparative data on such things as housing affordability and education attainment, according to the section it provided on methodology.
The article ranked Utah, Idaho and Washington as the strongest economically. Ranked at the bottom were Mississippi, New York and Louisiana.
These snapshot studies can be illustrative, but everyone should understand that they can be warped by special circumstances, such as a pandemic. Similarly, some states’ peculiar circumstances from five years ago also might skew the results.
Still, such metrics certainly are more credible than what we hear from partisan activists.
And they are useful as a kind of map that shows us — as a state and nation — where we currently stand.
Because if we don’t know where we are, there’s a much smaller chance that we can get to where we would like to be.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.