If you want to know why so many average Kentuckians are unhappy about the lack of good jobs and better wages since the Great Recession, read a report published Wednesday by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
The report, titled The State of Working Kentucky 2016, has a wealth of statistics that explain how working people in this state have continued to struggle during the past seven years of slow and uneven economic recovery.
The report has a mix of good news and bad news, with most of the good news in the “Golden Triangle” between Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati and most of the bad news in rural and chronically depressed parts of Kentucky.
The best news in the report is that real wages grew last year for Kentucky workers at all levels for the first time in 15 years. In fact, Kentucky had the nation’s strongest real wage growth from 2014 to 2015 at 7 percent, with the median wage rising from $15.06 to $16.11.
But the bad news is that Kentucky still has America’s 16th-lowest median wage, with workers here earning 92 percent of the national median. And most of Kentucky’s wage growth was at the top: workers in the top 30 percent of earners saw wages grow three times more than those in the bottom 30 percent.
Among the report’s other highlights:
Kentucky’s unemployment rate last year fell below pre-recession levels. But when you factor in population growth and the number of people who have dropped out of the labor force, the state still has a lot of catching up to do.
The state’s population has grown nearly twice as fast as the number of jobs since 2007 (5.1 percent compared to 2.6 percent), so Kentucky remains about 47,400 jobs short of pre-recession health. And if the same percentage of Kentuckians aged 25-54 were in the labor market now as in 2000, 118,000 more people should have jobs.
Only West Virginia and Mississippi have fewer prime working-age residents in the labor force than Kentucky, which the report attributes largely to a lack of job opportunities where people live. Those most likely to lack jobs are young, less-educated, black or Hispanic.
Job growth in Kentucky has been very uneven geographically. Only 25 of the state’s 120 counties had more people employed this June than in June 2007, and almost all of those counties were in the Golden Triangle.
Many Eastern Kentucky counties had big drops in employment, largely because of the loss of 10,600 coal mining jobs since 2009. But the report noted that mining employment has long been in decline for a variety of reasons.
Kentucky’s job problem isn’t just about numbers, but quality, the report said. Many high-paying jobs have been replaced with low-wage work.
One bright spot was the creation of 34,400 durable-goods manufacturing jobs since June 2009, mostly in automotive manufacturing. Kentucky had the nation’s second-highest percentage of growth in those good-paying jobs, after Michigan, the report said.
But other growing job sectors don’t pay so well. The report cited the “exceptionally large” growth of 32,900 temporary agency jobs.
“The high growth in temp agencies is very concerning,” said Anna Baumann, a center researcher and lead author of the report. “There is not a lot of job security and schedules can be unpredictable, which is not a good way of life for most people.”
Other big areas of growth since June 2009: 24,100 health care and social assistance jobs and 19,800 food and beverage service jobs.
One alarming statistic: Kentucky has lost 2,900 education jobs since 2007, about 500 of which have disappeared since June 2015. The report blamed most of those job losses on cuts in state spending on education.
The full report, which has many other revealing statistics about Kentucky employment trends, is available for download at: Kypolicy.org.
The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy is affiliated with the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, and its report includes several progressive policy recommendations sure to find little support among Gov. Matt Bevin and the Republican state Senate majority.
Among the recommendations: more investment in education; a higher minimum wage; a state earned-income tax credit for low-income workers; more child-care assistance for workers and a friendlier environment for collective bargaining.