Opinion: Recession isn’t over in North Idaho

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Maybe you’ve never thought about it.

But just in case you’ve noticed our unemployment numbers, you probably think they’re terrific — 3.4 percent in Kootenai County and a tiny 2.9 percent for the state overall.

You’d be wrong.

Or at least, you wouldn’t be an economist who sees the worry in these things.

In terms of North Idaho, if you go only as far south as Benewah County, we are the only county that has completely recovered from the recession of 2008.

Here’s the unhappy roll call of unemployment figures across the Panhandle: Boundary County, 6.4 percent; Bonner, 5.2; Shoshone, 7; and Benewah, 7.6.

“It’s concerning that our rural counties across the state are lagging pretty far behind,” said Sam Wolkenhauer, regional analyst for the Idaho Department of Labor.

“We’re a decade out from the recession, and Idaho’s urban counties — and there are only nine out of the 44 — have increased their employment rates by 12 percent.

“Meanwhile, the rural counties are actually down 2-3 percent against their pre-recession numbers.”

Rural counties in Idaho are far more reliant on natural resources for jobs, and a lot of that work has become automated as technology was leaping forward during the rough decade.

The tech industry didn’t bother to slow down.

The other problem in rural areas is aging — as Millennials and Gen-Xers either have left as soon as possible, or gone off to school and never come back.

There are few high-paying jobs to bring them home, and the situation is especially difficult for young couples.

How can they possibly find two good jobs in a county when it’s tough enough to find one?

It’s a fine line, Wolkenhauer said.

High unemployment — as we’re seeing throughout rural counties in North Idaho and elsewhere around the state — speaks for itself.

That’s pure economic illness.

ON THE other hand, there is such a thing as unemployment getting too low.

“During the oil boom in North Dakota,” Wolkenhauer said, “unemployment got below 2 percent. There was no one looking for work. They were having to pay people $25 an hour to flip burgers at McDonald’s.”

OK, slight exaggeration, but you get Sam’s point.

He mentioned a recent job fair, right here at home, and said there were three companies represented for every job-seeker who turned up.

When unemployment dips too far, management comes under terrific pressure.

We actually may feel it here, particularly in the restaurant business.

Here’s a snippet from Bloomberg News …

“Foot traffic in restaurants fell 1.2 percent in May according to data from Miller Pulse, and margins are falling.

“Earnings before interest and taxes are down, with the median margin dropping from 10 percent at the end of 2015 to 7.6 percent as of the first quarter of 2018.

“Prices are poised to go up, as labor costs rise due to a low jobless rate.”

If a restaurant can stay in business under those conditions — and plenty have closed across the nation — then where do you suppose the higher labor costs are offset?

That would be you, Mr. and Ms. Customer.

Believe it or not, there is a sweet spot in the unemployment world.

“Something around 4 to 4.5 percent would create the balance you need,” Wolkenhauer said. “It’s just not that easy to get it there.”

Aren’t you glad you read this little essay on economics?

Sleep well, my friends.

•••

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press.

A Brand New Day appears Wednesday through Saturday each week. Steve’s sports column runs on Tuesday.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com.

Twitter:@BrandNewDayCDA

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