Democrat Roy Cooper rolled out his jobs plan Wednesday in Charlotte by underscoring the same theme he’s been hammering on the campaign trail – that Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s “Carolina Comeback” has left blue-collar workers behind, especially in rural areas.
McCrory was having none of it. His campaign fired back with tweets and emails touting lower unemployment in every county since 2013, a revenue budget surplus of $425 million and one of the nation’s fastest-growing economies.
Which side is telling the whole story? Neither.
North Carolina’s economy isn’t as robust as Team McCrory would have you think, and it’s not as anemic as Team Cooper wants you to believe.
First off, the state’s economy is indeed growing. As Politifact North Carolina has noted, McCrory’s “fastest growing economy since 2013” claim is true when you consider growth since then in the state’s gross domestic product – the total of all goods and services produced.
Employment and worker earnings per hour are both higher now than they were in 2010, when Republicans took control of the General Assembly following the Great Recession.
Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner told the editorial board Wednesday that the state has been adding jobs at a faster rate than the nation and has seen stronger income growth.
And yet, the comeback has indeed left many behind.
Worker productivity, which economists link to pay and standard-of-living improvements, has been improving at a “historically modest pace,” N.C. State University economist Michael Walden said in a recent blog post.
He noted that this suggests “a chronic problem with a sizable number of working-age individuals in the state not having the skills necessary for the jobs being created.”
And even with unemployment falling, the number of N.C. residents who want to work but have given up on looking has remained at about the same level since 2010, when the uptick roughly began.
Our state’s problem isn’t solely about the party in power. It’s structural change in the national economy, which dictates terms to North Carolina’s economy. Our state remains relatively dependent on the recession-sensitive manufacturing sector, so we slingshot ahead when the national economy expands, and lag national averages during contractions.
Walden told the editorial board Wednesday that he calls that the “bouncy” quality of our state economy.
We’d also call it a prime reason why we need less political blame-gaming and more focus on retraining workers for the fast-changing digital economy. McCrory has spoken of that need, and Cooper made it a key plank in his jobs plan.
The General Assembly can help by boosting, not cutting, money for community colleges and universities.
Walden suspects the next recession might arrive in 2018, but hopes it will be modest compared with the Great Recession.
He’s keeping his fingers crossed. So are we.