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Why the rate

Unemployment rate numbers, read in fine grain, have for a long time seemed a little less than perfect measures. (We never bought the office state stats, for example, that Idaho’s unemployment rate in October 2007 was 2.5%, when 3% is the norm for something approaching full employment, and employers didn’t seem that desperate for help.) So what should we make of the reports out now that Oregon has the second-highest unemployment (now at 12.1%) in the nation, behind Michigan with its collapsing auto industry?

First, a note of context: Oregon is hurting in this depression, alongside the other states. There’s been no lack of shutdowns and layoffs. Times are tough in Oregon too – but, that much worse than in so many other states? Doesn’t feel that way: Bad, yes, but not that much worse.

In good times as well as bad, Oregon’s unemployment rates have tended to run higher than average. Might there be something systemic, or something unusual about Oregon, that contributes?

Evidently there is, outlined neatly in an Oregonian piece this morning. Oregon turns out to be one of those places people are reluctant to leave, and when times get tough they hang in there. It has a good reputation as a good place to live, and so becomes something of a magnet for people around the country when they’re out of work and looking for a new place to start over. (The place keeps harking back to its earliest days.) A number of other states, notably Nevada and California, seem to shed people more rapidly when the jobs go away – people who go to places like Oregon. All of this drives up the numbers of the unemployed, creating a higher rate.

This isn’t just raw speculation; stats to back it up are available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in March, when Oregon lost 77,000 jobs, the state’s available labor force rose by 58,000 – some of them newly looking for work, some of them arriving from elsewhere even though there was no work for them.

Helps to know what lies behind the numbers.

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