What Happened to 93,000 Pennsylvania Workers?

The glaring number at the heart of today's jobs report.

Let us first acknowledge the good news: There are more people employed in Pennsylvania than there were a year ago. There are fewer unemployed. The unemployment rate, as a result, is 5.7 percent — a number that sounds almost normal for a normal economy.

If Gov. Corbett wants to take a victory lap, we can’t blame him.


There’s one number in today’s labor statistics that is really bothersome, and it’s this: There are 93,000 fewer Pennsylvanians seeking work now than there were a year ago.

That’s a 1.4 percent decline; nationally, the labor force increased by 0.3 percent. And it amounts to a lot of people

The population of Reading, Pa., is about, 88,000 people. Imagine if that entire city just disappeared from the map — and took a few surrounding rural towns with it. We might treat the event like a serious emergency. Certainly, it might have a profound effect on the economy. But we tend to ignore that number when reporting labor stats.

In the context of the other numbers, though, it might have a lot of explanatory power.

  • Over the last year, the Pennsylvania economy added just 16,000 jobs.
  • During the same time, though, 109,000 fewer reported being unemployed.
  • Very, very tidily, we notice this: 109,000 minus 16,000 is … 93,000.

The government doesn’t tell us what happened to people leaving the workforce, but looking at the numbers, here’s one possibility that seems aided by the math: Of 109,000 people who were reported as unemployed a year ago, roughly 16,000 went back to work — and roughly 93,000 dropped out of the workforce entirely.

There are facts that complicate this theory. Surely some of those dropouts were people choosing to retire. So it’s not all bad news. (One explanation for the smaller workforce number: Congress shortened the duration of unemployment benefits; people who were collecting those benefits were still officially considered to be looking for jobs and thus part of the workforce. Without benefits to seek, many folks probably just dropped off the government’s numbers-counting radar — you’re unemployed, and after that you simply don’t count.)

Maybe there’s some other, better explanation for those 93,000 lost Pennsylvanians. Until that explanation is made, though, Corbett’s claim that unemployment has fallen to 5.7 percent looks, well, pretty hollow.

[Press Release from Department of Labor and Industry]