The Bad News Behind “Record Low Unemployment”

We’ve been hearing a lot of good news lately about low unemployment in Maine – 29 months worth of good news, to be exact.

That’s the number of consecutive months in which Maine’s jobless rate has been below 4%, which also happens to be the longest streak on record.

If fact, Maine’s April 2018 unemployment rate of 2.7% is lower than this time last year, lower than New England’s rate of 3.6% and lower than the national unemployment rate of 3.9%.

So what’s the problem with this good news?

First, as the graphic below illustrates, percentages can be misleading. Maine’s low unemployment rate is driven, in part, by fewer available workers. In fact, Maine has both fewer available workers AND fewer people working than we did five years ago, which is bad news for our state. During this same time span, Maine’s overall population has increased, meaning that fewer workers are supporting a larger population.

Second, where jobs have been added, they are largely in health care, social assistance, and service sectors. While these jobs provide essential services and employment opportunities for Mainers, they are reliant on domestic spending by Maine families – a situation where money gets recirculated within Maine. They do not bring new money into Maine through exports of finished goods or specialized, high-value services that can be sold outside of Maine . . . what we call “foundational jobs.”

Keep a sharp eye on that “good news” about Maine’s low unemployment rate – there’s plenty of worrisome news below the headlines.