If you're as old as me, you remember "the Massachusetts miracle." It won a bland non-entity named Michael Dukakis the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, as he briefly convinced the nation that his state had outperformed the nation in creating jobs during the Reagan years, and now he would bring his secret of success to the White House. Not only did Dukakis' claim not survive the unrelentingly cynical negative campaign of George H.W. Bush and Lee Atwater, but the next few years showed that "the Massachusetts miracle" was mostly "the Massachusetts mirage." The reality is that in this post-industrial economy, it's very difficult for states to outperform economically. But it's very easy to screw things up.
Consider Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett. Three years ago, he was running for a governor on a platform of "jobs, jobs, jobs." The funny thing was that, although thousands of Pennsylvanians were struggling through unemployment and other economic woes after the fiscal collapse of 2008, thoughout the Great Recession the state had suffered less than the nation. There were several reasons for that -- one of the biggest was the lack of a speculative housing market like in California, Nevada, Arizona, or Florida.
But the remarkable thing -- OK, not a miracle but more of a farce -- is that Corbett's platform of "jobs, jobs, jobs" has made things worse, worse, worse. Late in 2012, the lines finally crossed so that Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is now higher than the national average -- and the gap has been getting worse and worse. This news was buried late last week in the uproar over the Boston bombings, so let's repeat it: Last month, more people simply disappeared from Pennsylvania labor market -- some 33,000 in all -- than any month in the last 30 years:
A survey of households showed the number of people working or looking for work fell in March by 33,000 to just above 6.5 million. That’s the largest one-month drop since 1983.
Total employment dipped by 14,000 while total unemployment dropped by 19,000.
Payrolls also shrank by about 6,000 to about 5.74 million.
Where'd everybody go? Earlier today I spoke with Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center. He noted -- with the caveat that numbers can fluctuate from month to month -- that in March Pennsylvania ranked 49th in the nation in job growth, ahead of only Wyoming.
"I would worry that the fall back in labor force is people struggling to find work and dropping out," Price said. He explained the reasons could be more young and middle-aged workers enrolling in school, or recent graduates moving in with their mom and dad, or it could be the long-term older worker dropping out of the workforce altogether. It all paints a picture of increasingly discouraged workers.
What went wrong? It's had not to think that Corbett's policies, endorsed by GOP lawmakers, have been a factor. The overarching theme of the last two-and-a-half years has been reducing corporate taxes and offering tax breaks on a tail-chasing effort to create mostly non-existent private sector jobs; at the same time, massive aid cuts in education can be blamed directly for 20,000 job losses (not to mention the wider ripple effect), and more layoffs seem to be on the horizon. The governor's one big idea -- to make Pennsylvania "the Texas of natural gas" -- hasn't really panned out, has it?
The only good news here is that it looks more and more likely like Pennsylvania will have a new captain in 20 months to try and turn the ship around. Given the mess that she or he will inherit, it's a credit to human optimism that so many folks want Corbett's job.