Social Addendum: Record low unemployment doesn’t have to be such an important headline


Matthew McKenna, Photographer

Third-year chemical engineering major, Nicholas Dominic (back), and third-year marketing major, Juan Diego, make sandwiches on April 19 at the Arnold Dining center. Oregon State University is one of the biggest employers of students in Corvallis.

Christine Castles, Columnist

Editor’s Note: This column does not represent the opinion of The Daily Barometer. This column reflects the personal opinions of the writer.

At 2.6% in February, Benton County has the lowest unemployment rate in Oregon. That’s a good sign, but it’s essential to realize the unemployment rate is a single metric that only tells a portion of the whole story.

According to Jeff Reimer, professor of applied economics at Oregon State University, the number we commonly hear termed as “unemployment” is just one type of unemployment—U-3.

The U-3 unemployment number  is made up of the portion of the labor force that does not have a job and is actively looking for employment.

According to Reimer, this leaves out the underemployed—people who want more hours but are unable to get them, people who have been discouraged from looking for work, or were not able to look for work in the past month, for any reason.

For instance, if you became sick for a while and because of this were unable to look for work, you are not considered unemployed.

The U-3 unemployment rate also says nothing about how much those people are making, though Reimer said that a low unemployment rate—such as what we have now—can indicate that wages may go up since employers become more competitive for workers.

There are, however, other ways to measure unemployment, like U-6 unemployment, which focuses more on full-time and part-time employment with consideration given to how many hours people want to work.

“These improved measures are not always reported in the media because they take a bit of time to explain,” Reimer said. “However, they are considered by specialists who closely track the economy.”

So why does Benton County currently have such low unemployment compared to the rest of Oregon? Or even the rest of the United States?

In theory it has to do with the big employers in the area: agriculture, OSU, medical services, Hewlett-Packard, etc.

“These industries may be relatively stable compared to industries such as leisure and hospitality—such as restaurants and hotels—that fluctuate more with peoples’ spending power,” Reimer said. “The unemployment rate for Oregon and the nation is low by historical records, indicating strength in our economy at the present time.

Low unemployment rates seem to be a good sign, but not everyone’s experience reflects the numbers.

Jamie Stephenson-Noble, third-year OSU Spanish student, said she is not sure that she would be able to find another job very easily if she lost her current job.

Though the news and media mentions unemployment frequently, Stephenson-Noble said, “I don’t really think about unemployment that often.”

And why should she? We make a big deal out of obscure numbers that actually say very little.

Reimer mentioned many times that unemployment can be a signifier of a healthy or strong economy. This language may be useful for economists, but it is pretty irrelevant how great the economy is if you are struggling to be a full-time student, work a part-time job and still have time to go to the grocery store.

This is where the emphasis of inadequate hours, pay or benefits for those hours is especially impactful for students.

At OSU, finding any on-campus job may be simple, but finding the right job can be much more difficult. Earning enough money to pay for rent, bills and food, as well as any other necessities is practically impossible to do on minimum wage (which is pretty standard for on-campus jobs), while also being able to keep up as a full-time student.

Barriers to employment are especially impactful to those who already have too much on their plate. Cover letters, for instance, eat up time, and if we’re being honest, they say more about how well someone can write a cover letter than how good someone will be at that job.

So when you hear about the health and strength of the economy, just remember, the economy is an inanimate social construct used to describe ways that money and capital move around.

How healthy or strong the economy is does not matter. What matters is if people are happy and healthy (to name a few things). We can use the economy to understand parts of society, but ultimately numbers do not tell the whole story.

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