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Column: Data paint unclear portrait of state, U.S. employment

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This column is not intended to confuse you but to share the difficulty of making flat statements about a complicated matter. Be patient; and, maybe, together we can make sense out of what appears to be chaos.

Is it over? Has the recession ended? What do we mean “the recession has ended?”

The answer from a national perspective is yes. If you are still or again unemployed, your recession continues.

Whether the recession is over may depend on where you live and how we define recession.

Unemployment is the greatest concern we have about recessions. Workers without jobs are in trouble. Their incomes are down because unemployment compensation does not substitute for the pay of a full-time job and they may be without health insurance.

If we compare April 2013 with the start of the recession, approximately April 2008, we find only Vermont and Alaska have more people unemployed today than five years ago. However, conditions in those two states are very different.

In Vermont, there are now more people employed than in 2008, and there are more people looking for work. This is probably a good situation. Encouraged by growing employment, more Vermonters are looking for work. The data say that 79 percent of the added labor force found jobs.

By contrast, in Alaska, there are fewer employed people than in 2008. The data suggest 94 percent of those without jobs withdrew from the state’s labor force. Alaska is not a place folks hang around if work is not available.

Indiana is among the 16 fortunate states where employment grew, the number unemployed dropped, and the size of the labor force increased. We have 193,000 more people employed now than in April 2008. Of these, 100,000 were previously counted as unemployed and 93,000 as labor force entrants or re-entrants.

(The reader should be careful not to take these descriptive words too seriously. We do not know if the 100,000 decline in the number unemployed is because Hoosiers without jobs went back to work. As told, the story is a convenient convention to describe a complex set of possible relationships.)

Other states enjoying similar positive conditions included Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin. However, it remains too early for the Great Lakes governors to start thumping their chests about the superiority of their economic progress.

Indiana still has 167,000 unemployed workers. Many of these people have been without jobs for an extended period of time. Together, the five Great Lake states have 1.4 million people unemployed, 18 percent of the national total 7.9 million without jobs.

Less fortunate than the Great Lakes region were 13 states, including North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas, where the jobless numbers declined, but so too did employment and the labor force. This scenario suggests states where those losing jobs either become unemployed or leave the labor force.

The national picture is like Indiana. While employment increases, unemployment declines and the labor force grows.

Does this suggest a healthy labor market? Are students who leave school to take jobs shortchanging themselves and their futures? Are retired people being pressed by economic necessity to return to work? The lack of answers confounds policy makers and economists alike.

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.

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