Rhode Island’s employment picture for February gives a positive impression, on first look. Put in the contexts of the past and of the country, however, it’s not quite as sunny.
On the first count, the numbers show a boom in employment, out of nowhere. We’ve seen such results every year for the past several, and they’ve always been followed by significant downward revisions.
On the second count, although Rhode Island was second strongest (after Virginia), the significant increase occurred almost universally across the country — both in states that had been experiencing growth and in states (like Rhode Island) that had been on the downswing.
The first chart below illustrates why a healthy skepticism is in order. After many years of general stagnation, February 2014 arrives as a sudden ramp, both in employment and in labor force.
The second chart provides a longer-term sense of the results. Rhode Island is still below its employment level just before the jobs-crash of the recession and still lags both of its neighbors dramatically when it comes to reclaiming jobs.
The third chart compares Rhode Island’s unemployment rate with what it would have been if the state’s labor force had held steady. It shows that unemployment never got as low as Rhode Island officials had claimed, and the growth in the gap between the two lines is steadier and more dramatic, with the exception of the peculiar results this past month.
The chart makes clear that the Ocean State’s unemployment rate would have been much higher, over the past few years, had people not given up looking for work… almost reaching 14% in 2011. It also emphasizes the disturbing trend that the only reason the unemployment rate seems to have been stagnant, rather than increasing, throughout 2013 is that fewer Rhode Islanders are counted at all.