Four Charts That Show Tom Corbett Doesn’t Understand Pennsylvania’s Economy

Why he's wrong — still — to blame the poor for joblessness.

What? Me worry?

What? Me worry?

Tom Corbett seems determined to end his governorship the same way he arrived: By blaming the poor for their inability to find good work in Pennsylvania. 

He did it again this week, in a meeting with the PennLive editorial board, saying more people could find work in the state if only the could pass pre-employment drug screenings.

Chris Brennan at the Daily News says Corbett told the board about a woman he once tried to employ:

 “We were ready to give somebody a job who really needed it,” he said. “The night after we told her that she was going to get the job — but I guess we hadn’t told her she had to pass a drug test — she celebrated. She came back in the next day and we said, ‘You have to take a drug test,’ and she said, ‘I can’t. Isn’t that sad?’ ”

Corbett reminded the PennLive journalists: “You all took shots at me when I said this a couple of years ago.”

That’s a reference to stories written after Corbett said in an April 2013 interview that employers “can’t find anybody that has passed a drug test.”

As Brennan points out, Corbett was relying on a report from the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, which suggested that drug use was a concern for companies looking for employees — but that “for most companies, drug testing did not lead to a large percentage of potential employees refusing to take a drug test or show up for a drug test.”

Corbett’s been doing this ever since his first run for governor. Back in spring of 2011, you’ll recall, he made waves by suggesting that there was plenty of work for Pennsylvanians in an economy that hadn’t yet reached rock bottom — all you had to do was look at the classified ads!

“You guys asked me if there are jobs out there,” he was quoted as saying by the Inquirer. “If I am a common citizen, the average citizen, and I look at a newspaper … and I see jobs — what’s the answer to that question?”

In truth, the state was then beginning a process that is by now familiar: It was shedding high-paying middle class jobs and replacing them with low-wage burger-flipping work. It’s a trend that should’ve concerned Corbett then. His reliance on explanations that blame the poor for their predicament explains why it doesn’t concern him now.

Probably the best way to demonstrate Corbett’s failure of comprehension is to use a few charts from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Here is the trend line of employment for the last 10 years in the state’s manufacturing sector, one of the highest-paying job sectors there is:



And here’s the employment trend for Pennsylvania construction jobs, also relatively well-paying.



Not for nothing, here’s the trend line in government employment in the state — an awful lot of jobless middle-class teachers in that down line.


 Notice a common theme? Employment in those sectors  is simply much lower now than it used to be. But here’s how employment has fared in the low-wage “hospitality” sector:

Marijuana has nothing to do with those statistics. Good jobs — the kind you can support a family on — have largely left Pennsylvania. They’re being replaced by, well, less-good jobs.

(To be fair, jobs have grown quite a bit in the health sector — but that mostly means Gen Xers and Millennials are about to spend their productive years taking care of sick, old Baby Boomers. That’s not the foundation for a vibrant economy.)

It would be wrong to blame Corbett entirely for those trend lines: The Great Recession was well under way by the time he took office and the recovery has been much harder than he likes to let on. Yes, the unemployment rate is lower now than when he took office, but the state’s workforce is smaller — there are fewer people working and seeking work, according to the BLS: 6.4 million people then versus 6.34 million now.

The economy in this state has been changing, at fundamental levels that require big adjustments on the parts of both workers and policymakers. Corbett’s failure to diagnose the issue correctly means he’s not the right person to solve it.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.