Ore.'s falling jobless rate: Have some given up?

AP News
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Posted: Nov 18, 2009 11:34 AM

Oregon's unemployment rate has been falling, but that could be partly because some people can't find a job.

The basis for that jarring idea emerged earlier this year as the state's unemployment rate rose dramatically, much faster than the national increase. Eventually, the state's unemployment rate trailed only that of Michigan.

Oregon Employment Department officials noted that, despite the discouraging job market, Oregon's labor force was also growing quickly. They speculated that among the reasons was spouses getting joining the labor force because their partners had been fired.

One private economist described it as one layoff resulting in two people unemployed.

Now, state officials say, many of those spouses may have given up seeking jobs. So, they no longer are considered unemployed.

Officials say retirees looking for a job because their 401(k) or other retirement accounts had been damaged may also have left the labor force, which would also help lower the unemployment rate.

The unemployment numbers are based on raw data collected in U.S. Census Bureau surveys. A person is considered unemployed who reports looking for work within the previous four weeks.

On Monday, the state Employment Department said the Oregon jobless rate had fallen to 11.3 percent, down about a percentage point from the high in May.

The figure was based on about 222,000 unemployed people in a labor force of 1.96 million, according to the state statistics. The labor force is down from its spring peak of more than 2 million.

Employment economist Art Ayre said the state doesn't have hard data to back the suppositions, but economists do draw inferences from national data and anecdotal evidence.

"One possibility is that people were jumping into the labor force to see whether they could get a job to help out the family budget," Ayre said.

He noted that Oregon hit peaks for the size of its labor force and its unemployment rate in the spring, about the time that national surveys showed consumer confidence hit their lowest points.

So, he said, spouses may be dropping out of the job hunt because they've been unsuccessful, "or they were feeling that the worst was over."

Economic consultant Bill Conerly of Lake Oswego cautions against leaning heavily on the spousal idea, "although it's certainly part of the story."

He thinks it's possible the Census Bureau had a misleading sample earlier this year. The surveys reach slightly fewer than 1,000 Oregonians a month, he said, "generally a pretty good sample, but maybe not this time."