Covering Ohio’s Changing Economy

Can reporters connect the candidates’ rhetoric to on-the-ground reality?

OHIO — Barack Obama and Mitt Romney traipsed their way through the Cleveland area last week, the start of what’s sure to be many Ohio visits as the general election unfolds. And with voters describing the economy and jobs as “very important” issues, it’s no surprise that the two candidates emphasized their parties’ competing visions of the economy, with Obama citing the recovery and the auto bailout, while Romney—and Republican Governor John Kasich, who finally endorsed the Republican front-runner—argue the president has held back progress.

And the coverage of the visits was generally solid, led by Steve Koff’s good advance look in The Plain Dealer at the candidates’ differing plans for job-retraining programs.

To carry the coverage forward, though, reporters here will have to help voters put those visions in the context of Ohio’s changing economy. Unfortunately, getting a handle on what those changes are—or even what the state of the economy is—can be a challenging task.

For a look at how the story of the Buckeye State’s economy can be put into the “good news” column, consider an April 21 piece from the Dayton Daily News. The lede:

Job growth — not discouraged workers giving up on their job searches — pushed unemployment in Ohio down for the eighth straight month in March.

The rate dipped to 7.5 percent last month from 7.6 percent in February, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported Friday. The March rate was the lowest since October 2008 and lower than the national rate of 8.2 percent. A year ago, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 8.8 percent.

The March figure may be the strongest indicator yet this year that the state’s job market is strengthening.

The civilian labor force grew by 10,000 to 5.81 million, and total employment was up 15,000 to 5.37 million, according to the state jobs department.

“These numbers are all positive,” said ODJFS spokesman Ben Johnson. “In previous months, the reason that total employment has fallen and the unemployment rate has fallen is that the labor force shrank. But that was not the case last month.”

That quote from Johnson is important because, as noted by many Ohio media outlets, one of the stories of the state’s sluggish turnaround has been that declining unemployment could be attributed to a shrinking labor force—a code phrase for frustrated unemployed people who have simply quit looking for work.

So this latest news sounds like good stuff, indeed. Perhaps it is time to retire that well-worn story of Ohio, a foundering rust-belt state losing manufacturing jobs in droves.

But not so fast. Job numbers, especially monthly tallies, may be more akin to reading tea leaves than they are take-it-to-the-bank data. Just a few hours before that Daily News piece, Olivera Perkins of The Plain Dealer published a story on the jobs data with a very different tone:

Ohio led the nation in job losses in March, even as the state’s unemployment rate inched downward.

Fewer jobs, but more people working? Blame the contradiction on how data used in calculating the jobless rate are collected…

The U.S. Labor Department reported Friday that Ohio lead the nation in job losses in March. Ohio’s nonfarm wage and salary employment fell by 9,500, to about 5.14 million, the largest monthly drop in the nation. New Jersey was second with an 8,600 loss, and Wisconsin was third with 4,500.

The number of employed workers in Ohio increased by 15,000 in March, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reported Friday. The number of unemployed people fell about 5,000 to 438,000—with the unemployment dropping 0.1 of a percentage point, to 7.5 percent.

Perkins’s piece provides a detailed explanation of where the contradictions in the data come from, though knowing that doesn’t really clear up the picture. The upshot, Amy Hanauer, executive director of the think tank Policy Matters Ohio, said in an interview, is that journalists should take the longer view.

“I know you’ve got to put out a paper every day, but the month-to-month numbers change so much it is too much of a temptation to take a one month change as meaning more than it does,” Hanauer said. Her takeaway? “It’s been a really slow economic recovery by any measure and anyone saying the Ohio economy is doing well, well we would really contest that.” (Policy Matters also put out its own statement in the week of the jobs report, calling it a “mixed message.”)

One element of that longer view might be to take a look at what sort of jobs Ohio’s economy is producing—and what, if anything, the people running for office can do to influence where those jobs are. When the politicians pass through, whether it’s Obama at a community college or Romney at a closed drywall factory, they tend to talk about manufacturing. Hanauer, of Policy Matters, agreed that focus is appropriate. “I think manufacturing is still a key to Ohio’s economy,” she said. “You need a strong manufacturing sector. Even if that story is boring, it does not mean it’s not true.”

As journalists work to explore the competing economic visions for Ohio and the broader Rust Belt, then, they might hold up the candidates’ plans against the state’s own projections, which foresee a diminishing role for manufacturing. One state report (PDF) estimated that Ohio would add about 250,000 jobs between 2008 and 2018, but that:

Service-providing industries will account for almost all of the job growth; construction is the only goods-producing industry expected to add jobs. Education and health services will add 45 percent of the new jobs, while more than one in four new jobs will be gained in professional and business services. Large numbers of new jobs are also projected in construction; leisure and hospitality; and other services. Transportation and utilities; and financial activities are each projected to add more than 10,000 new jobs by 2018. Also growing are government; and wholesale and retail trade. Manufacturing, natural resources, and information are all projected to lose employment.

One other part of the longer view? Since the crash, those government jobs haven’t been growing. An important issue “that is receiving very little attention are the deep cuts, in Ohio and elsewhere, to local government and local public school budgets,” Paul Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University, wrote via email.

“The effects of those cuts are still to be felt as the locals/schools are putting together their budgets now for the next fiscal year and looking at lots of red ink,” Beck added. “There will surely be another round of cuts in public employment, which might affect the states’ economic situations too. After all, public jobs are jobs, and that sector has been diminishing—and will diminish even more.” (The Dayton Daily News story cited above was strong on this point, noting that cuts in government spending are “one of the headwinds threatening to hold back job growth in the coming months.”)

Hazy short-term data, an uncertain future for manufacturing, looming public-sector cuts—it all adds up to a complicated, challenging subject.

But an important one. It’s unlikely that jobs and the economy will slide down voters’ pecking order of personal concerns in this bellwether state. Which makes this challenge a perfect opportunity for curious, enterprising journalists to go beyond the candidates’ rhetoric, and the latest numbers, to deliver the fuller story to their readers.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.