A look at the latest data offers mixed signals.
Unemployment is down to 5.7 percent cumulatively for the January through May period. The value of goods and gross domestic production, adjusted for inflation, has rebounded but not quite to pre-recession highs. That’s all significant. Very significant. The economy has definitely improved.
But Elkhart County still lags the high watermarks set before the recession hit, and the data offers a more nuanced and mixed message.
The numbers show three major changes.
- The number of people who are actually working — earning wages to buy food, pay mortgages and stay alive — is down by nearly 10,000 compared to the 2006 peak.
- Demand is holding steady or rising at area agencies that serve the needy. The figures show that more people have jobs compared to 2009, but many still aren’t earning enough to make ends meet.
- An average worker in manufacturing used to make an average of $15.40 in 2007. In 2013, a worker in the same job sector made an average of $14.24. Annualized, that’s a dip from $32,040 to $29,630.
The cumulative five-month unemployment rate so far for 2014 totals 5.7 percent — that’s the lowest annualized figure since 1991.
But looking at the number of people who are actually working offers a more pessimistic view. The chart below shows that the number of people actually earning a living has shrunk by nearly 10,000.
(The unemployment figure, by the way, reflects the number of people with jobs divided by the size of the labor force — not the overall population including children, the retired or people who aren’t actively looking for work. It’s an ever-evolving number that shifts as people enter and exit the job market.)
There were fewer workers in manufacturing, the motor of the Elkhart County economy in 2013 from pre-recession years, and workers are now earning less than before, too. Those manufacturing jobs represent the workers on the factory floors — not company brass — and it’s the largest single chunk of the Elkhart County labor force.
That jives with comments from leaders at agencies like The Window and Church Community Services that the lesser wages are insufficient to cover day-to-day costs.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, the number of chief executives and managers edged up from 4,530 in 2006 to 4,790 in 2013. Their average annual pay went from $83,320 to $93,160 in the period.
Food banks, soup kitchens:
Demand is holding at food banks and other agencies that help the poor and needy.
Across the board, representatives at the agencies say the numbers reflect, in part, low wages earned by many. Joblessness may be down and more people may have work, but it’s not always paying enough to cover all the bills, hence the need to tap social service agencies for help to cover the gap.
Ed Swartley, executive director at The Window, said in the late 2000s, about everyone who used the food pantry there was unemployed. Now those with jobs account for about 30 percent of food pantry users, with 70 percent coming from the ranks of the unemployed.
“Now we have people who have jobs, but it’s just not paying the bills,” he said.
Poverty, food stamps:
The ranks of the neediest still surpass pre-recession levels, though the numbers aren’t as pronounced as they were when things were at their worst, in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Source: data compiled by Indiana Family and Social Services Administration STATS Indiana.
Poverty in Elkhart County measured 10.8 percent in 2006 and 15.2 percent in 2012, the latest year for which numbers are available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.