The headline for Rhode Island’s employment picture for March is that the unemployment rate slid all the way down to 8.7% (still last in the nation, though). You’d be hard pressed to find evidence of this employment boom in the experience of living here, but there it is.
The first chart below illustrates why some healthy skepticism continues to be in order. After many years of general stagnation, February and March 2014 arrive 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. Indeed, Massachusetts is now beyond where it was in January 2007, and almost at its pre-recession peak, which it hit a few months later.
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 these past two months.
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.