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In Our View: Jobless pain will intensify

Long-term benefits to be reduced as state unemployment rate improves

The Columbian
Published: April 3, 2012, 5:00pm

You’ve heard of the “jobless recovery,” right? It’s the first phase of escape from America’s worst economic crisis in seven decades. There is evidence at national and state levels that the first phase is ending, but here in Clark County, 11 percent of the workforce still feels the pain of being jobless.That pain is about to intensify. Blame the cruel irony of relative success elsewhere. Two federal jobless benefits programs are based on each state’s unemployment rate. And because Washington’s dipped to 8.2 percent in February, about 12,500 unemployed workers will lose long-term benefits on April 21. Eight months later, 11,000 more will lose benefits, and another 40,000 could lose benefits by the end of the year. In Clark County, 4,239 residents already have run out of benefits, and about 5,000 more will join those ranks by the end of April.

The impact of these financial punches on individual families cannot be fully understood by others. As state Employment Security Commissioner Paul Trause said Tuesday: “Losing up to six months of benefits will make the unemployment situation a lot more urgent for thousands of families.”

In the midst of the financial hardship that will be made even worse for so many families, we can at least detect one ray of optimism from the perspective of the overall population: the lowering of the state jobless rate. We also think it makes good sense for the federal programs to have built-in triggers that maximize the taxpayers’ investment in unemployment benefits by reducing the benefits when the problem subsides. Still, that’s no consolation to the folks who remain out of work.

On the plus side, from the collective perspective, Clark County added 1,600 private-sector jobs in February. Moderating the celebration, though, was the loss of 700 public-sector jobs, for a net gain of about 900 local jobs. Here are some projections from state regional economist Scott Bailey: To lower Clark County’s jobless rate to 5 percent by 2016 would require job growth of about 4 percent per year, or 5,300 jobs annually, or 442 jobs per month. In that context, February’s net gain of 900 jobs looks better.

Here’s more encouraging news in the local economy: The vacancy rate in the local industrial real estate market fell to 13 percent in the first quarter, down from 15 percent at the end of 2011. More than 245,000 square feet of vacant manufacturing and warehouse space was rented and removed from the local inventory. Ultimately, that translates to jobs, although how many won’t be known for awhile.

To be sure, Clark County is still far from recovery. But as a community, it could be argued that the worst of the economic crisis has passed. Certainly, the devastating peak jobless rate of 15.9 percent of the local workforce fades rapidly in the rear-view mirror. That was more than two years ago, March 2010 to be precise.

Then again, thousands of local families will insist it’s still just a jobless recovery. For them, we hope the pace of recovery quickens, that the first phase can be completed, that Clark County can move back into single-digit jobless rates, indeed that the 5 percent figure morphs from dream to reality.