As in many other parts of the country this year, Ohio is seeing an uptick in job growth. But despite strong gains, new state data show many counties continue to struggle since the Great Recession. And, most Ohio counties still have fewer jobs today than they had two decades ago.
The numbers are staggering. Of Ohio’s 88 counties, three-quarters have yet to recover from the last two recessions.
This is a departure from most of the state's history, when a majority of Ohio counties shared in the employment growth seen during the expansions following each economic recession, says Your Voice Ohio data-journalist David Knox.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Montgomery County is among the hardest-hit, with labor statistics that reflect its years of devastating job losses in manufacturing and other industries.
"In terms of median household income, Montgomery County peaked in 1969, and it isn't alone there. But that hurts," says Knox.
The Great Recession’s recovery technically began in 2009. And since then, says Knox, the state as a whole is doing much better.
But, adjusted for inflation, wages have remained flat. And today’s falling unemployment rate hasn’t made up for decades of decline.
"The jobs that are being created are being concentrated more in fewer areas," he says.
Knox counts Delaware, Franklin and Mercer counties among those where recovery has taken hold.
He points to their success in attracting growth in diverse small businesses and new high-tech manufacturing.
Below is a longer excerpt of WYSO's interview with Your Voice Ohio data journalist David Knox, edited for length and clarity:
Ohio came out of the Great Recession faster than most states and that was because of the money that was poured into the auto industry to save the auto industry. That resulted in jobs coming back in Ohio and, as a result, Ohio did better than the nation in terms of job growth in those first several years coming out of the Great Recession. Since then though, Ohio has lagged behind the nation in terms of the percentage of job growth.
This has been a good year in the sense that the unemployment rate keeps dropping. The reason I wanted to look at the county data is because I wanted to see if this was shared generally equally across the state. And it isn't. That's really the issue.
Where we stand right now is, we're not at a peak. Technically, the recovery began in the middle of 2009, and looking at this recovery, you're down to 21 counties that have posted record employment. And obviously Montgomery is not among them.
Is the state as a whole doing better? Absolutely. I mean, the numbers for the counties that are doing better are really good, Franklin, for example, Delaware.
The recovery is very uneven and three-quarters of the counties in this state still have fewer jobs in them. The jobs that are being created are being concentrated more in fewer areas.
But the big takeaway is that most of Ohio's counties have fewer jobs today than they had nearly 20 years ago, in 1999, 2000.
You can adjust wages for inflation and that's easy to do, and when you do that it's interesting because you can see that wages have been flat. the wages haven't gone up. Only this year are they starting to see indications that unemployment is so low that there is enough upward pressure on wages that some people are saying we are getting growth in wages.
But another factor that I think has to be considered is how much money you need to get into the middle class. I think that has a bearing on whether or not people are willing to take a job.
If you go back decades to when manufacturing was king, a person gets a job in a factory, and back then in Ohio it would be a largely union operation.
The pay would be good, even starting out, and you'd be able to start a family, buy a car, your company would have a pension so you wouldn't worry about that. You wouldn't worry about health care because the company would pay for that, too. Furthermore, you would look forward to raising a family and being able to send your kids to college -- the college that you never went to because you went to work in a factory.
The point is, there was an awful lot of that brass ring that was out there for you to grab when you got a job back then in a factory. And I think that motivated a lot of people to show up on time, to get the skills that they needed to to keep this job and to be a good worker.
Today, you could take the the amount of pay that you got back then in a factory adjusted for inflation.
Let's say it's up $50,000. What does that get you today?
The problem is that all of the things that were the hallmarks of the middle class have wildly outstripped inflation in terms of their cost, so now you get that manufacturing job, or any job that pays $50,000. It doesn't get you necessarily into the middle class.
If you're coming out of college, you may have a debt load that is the equivalent of more than a car.
All of this means foregoing, at least for some period of time,starting a family, buying a house, trying to get going. The pay that is offered today in many, many jobs does not get you into the middle class the way it would have, even adjusted for inflation.
In terms of median household income, Montgomery County peaked in 1969, adjusted for inflation, and it isn't alone there. Cuyahoga County peaked in 1969 and so did Lucas, of the urban counties in Ohio. But that hurts. Median household income means half above and half below that mark. To see that peak in 1969 is interesting in terms of the positive things that you can look for.
Mercer County is also doing quite well and a big chunk of that is high-tech manufacturing.
The takeaway there is diversity -- that the counties that seem to be doing better are the ones that concentrate on getting more, smaller firms going and starting up and where you're adding scores of jobs and maybe into the hundreds, that this seems to be a better strategy for invigorating the economy and making for a more vibrant economy.