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The politics of jobs: WI April jobs down, but are they the best number?

By   /   May 17, 2012  /   No Comments


By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — New day, new numbers, same political spin.

Thursday afternoon, a day after releasing new comprehensive data showing Wisconsin’s economy added more than 23,000 jobs last year, contrary to previous federal figures, the stateDepartment of Workforce Development unveiled the latest seasonally adjusted monthly jobs report, which indicates private-sector jobs down by 6,200 from March.

The preliminary data, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, show private-sector payroll statewide declined by a total of 11,100 jobs between April 2011 and April 2012.

Total nonfarm employment, including government jobs, declined by 5,900 from March, and by 21,400 compared to April 2011.

The latest monthly jobs numbers tell a different story than what state labor experts, business advocates and others say they have seen on the ground for the past several months, leading DWD Secretary Reggie Newson at a news conference Thursday to declare:

“This information is inaccurate and cannot be trusted.”

“This information is in contradiction with all the other indicators that we have,” Newson said.

It certainly seems to be.

Data debate

Workforce Development on Wednesday put out what it billed as actual 2011 jobs data, showing Wisconsin’s economy added more than 23,000 jobs between December 2010 and December 2011.

That was vastly different than BLS’ Employment Statistics data, which estimated a net loss of 33,900 jobs in 2011.

The department’s data was drawn from a BLS quarterly report of employment information drawn from all businesses covered under state or federal employment insurance, representing some 160,000 companies employing about 2.7 million workers in Wisconsin.

That’s a far greater universe than the BLS’s monthly Employment Statistics report, which estimates employment based on a survey of roughly 5,500 employers — about 3.5 percent of Wisconsin businesses. The information is released on a preliminary basis every month, revised the following month and is not benchmarked until several months later.

Backers of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democrat’s choice to take on Republican Scott Walker next month in Wisconsin’s unprecedented gubernatorial recall election, mocked the report, calling the data “magic math.”

“ … (T)oday Walker is trotting out an entirely new set of unverified numbers to distract attention from the fact that under his watch Wisconsin lost more jobs than any other state in the country in 2011, and was the only state in the nation to suffer significant job loss over the past 12 months,” the Barrett campaign said in a statement Wednesday.

Democrats saw the report, released more than a month ahead of the federal schedule, as a campaign stunt, and, in an arguably weird turn of logic, effectively criticized the administration for not vetting the BLS numbers with the BLS. The bureau is slated to release the final numbers late next month.

Better numbers

Mike Buso, a BLS economist, told Wisconsin Reporter, there is absolutely nothing wrong with states bringing out the quarterly report early. Other states often do it.

“They’re not breaking the law,” Buso said. “States have a pretty free hand in this.”

Countering claims about the integrity of the data, Buso joined several economists who noted the quarterly report is more comprehensive, more accurate than the smaller monthly sample, and that the data showing an increase of 23,000 jobs last month probably won’t change much.

Still, Democrats pounced on Thursday’s release, trumpeting the validity of BLS numbers that even BLS contends are not as comprehensive as the quarterly report.

“These dismal jobs numbers make it clear why Gov. Walker and his partisan political cronies pushed their own unique, (incomparable) jobs data three weeks before an election,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha in a statement. “They knew today’s data — which is comparable — would continue to show that Walker has the worst jobs record of any governor in the country.”

Newson said the latest revised monthly figures from earlier in the year show the “volatility, unreliability and the imprecision of these month-to-month estimates.”

For instance, the February preliminary jobs report estimated the state gained a total of 8,300 nonfarm jobs. The revised figures show the state gained 10,100 jobs in February.

Meanwhile, preliminary figures for March — the stats anti-Walker forces jumped on and declared unimpeachable (if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase in recall season) — estimated the state’s economy lost 4,500 total nonfarm jobs; revised data showed a gain of 2,800 jobs. On the private sector side in March, the preliminary count was a loss of 4,300 jobs; the revised count was a decline of 3,700.

As C+C Music Factory once poetically put it, these are “things that make you go Hmm?

Brighter signs

In another key gauge, unemployment declined a tenth of a percentage point, to 6.7 percent in April, the lowest level since 2008. And about 27,000 more people were working in April compared to the same month in 2011.

There have been other signs of improvement.

Individual income tax collections topped $928 million in April, up 3.6 percent from the same month last year, according to the state Department of Revenue. On the year, income tax collections neared $5.5 billion, up 4.5 percent compared to the first four months of last year.

General sales and use tax collections soared 9.5 percent in April, to $356 million, and were up 4.8 percent in the first four months, to $3.16 billion.

New business formation was up 12.2 percent during the first quarter of the year, compared to the same period last year, and initial unemployment insurance claims are down this calendar year over last year.

Politics of numbers

The jobs report, the last before the June 5 election, fuels what the Marquette Law School poll found to be the No.1 issue in the campaign: Jobs. The initiative all began with the ire of organized labor and Democrats infuriated over Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature’s bill — now law — that curbed collective bargaining for most unionized public employees.

But Walker opponents have made the governor’s handling of the economy their recall rallying cry.

So more than ever, the monthly job reports are eyed by politicians and spun for every available advantage.

The Walker administration has been just as guilty, in the first half of last year lauding the rising monthly employment numbers as proof of Wisconsin’s growing economy.

At least one political observer said the jobs numbers will mean very little come June 5.

“People are pretty split down the middle when it comes to Walker versus anybody or Walker versus Barrett,” said Thomas Holbrook, political science professor and chairman of the Political Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

People who like Scott Walker are going to view the numbers from their personal prism, Holbrook said, and people who don’t are going to come away with different conclusions, confirming what they already believe.