COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ask politician, pundit and voter alike and they will tell you the same thing: The November election is about jobs.
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Job growth is both a key economic indicator and an easy issue for politicians to talk about when campaigning. Yet when the claims of Republican Gov. John Kasich and Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald conflict, Ohioans can be left baffled.
A look at some of the facts about Ohio jobs and the politics behind the debate:
Ohio's nonfarm employment was more than 5.3 million in June. That marked a gain of 243,900 since Kasich succeeded Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in January 2011. Private employment also has risen, and new job starts, another important gauge of an economy's health, rose 1,270 from the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of this year.
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Ohio's unemployment rate has fallen steadily since 2010, from 10.6 percent in January 2010 to 5.5 percent in May and June, the lowest rate since before the recession. The private sector has led the growth. Overall government employment fell from January 2011 to June, led by nearly 25,000 jobs lost in local government. Median incomes in Ohio have fallen about $7,000 over the past decade.
Kasich took Ohio's helm in the wake of a punishing national recession. From January 2007 to January 2010, Ohio had lost 430,000 jobs. Federal labor statistics show the downward trend had begun to reverse as Strickland and Kasich were facing off for governor in 2010. Four years out, the nation and about a third of individual states have fully recovered jobs lost during the recession; Ohio has recovered about 6 in 10 jobs.
The state often ranks in the top or bottom ranges of 50-state rankings that report raw numbers. Keep in mind that may relate to its large population.
It's also good to be aware that the unemployment rate is in some ways a fickle statistic. It measures the percentage of Ohioans who say they are jobless and looking, so the rate can seem to improve when people are discouraged and give up job-hunting, or it can appear worse when optimism abounds and previously discouraged workers start to try to re-enter the workforce. Since 2007, Ohio's overall workforce — the base from which the statistic is calculated — has shrunk from nearly 6 million to a little over 5.7 million, both from workforce dropouts and retiring baby boomers.
Kasich points to tax changes and budget cuts as helping stimulate Ohio's economy. He frequently highlights not only newly added jobs but those the administration prevented from leaving the state or those relocated within the state.
FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, focuses his jobs talk on the impact of state budget cuts on schools and other local government employers. It is a natural strategy for two reasons: the job losses experienced by the sector; and Kasich's perceived vulnerability among unionized police, firefighters and teachers who remember the collective bargaining fight of 2011. He also points to declines in Ohio's median incomes, which Kasich notes are improving faster than the nation as a whole.
Kasich points to his economic successes and pledges to stay his course on tax cuts, spending controls and innovative cost-sharing and streamlining strategies if elected. He would like to eliminate Ohio's income tax eventually. FitzGerald is focused on restoring local government cuts and building broader access to education. He has proposed a college affordability plan and a blueprint for offering universal preschool, though with few details of how those would be paid for.
In Warren, Barb Allen's story helps illustrate the complicated nature of jobs statistics. The 50-year-old Allen has been employed, laid off, re-employed and jobless in a single year's span. Allen says the living she made at General Electric's Ohio Lamp Plant, where she worked as a mechanic for 17 years, allowed the single mother to raise three kids and buy her own house. With overtime, there were years she pulled in $94,000. When the plant's closure and layoffs were announced in August, "it was devastating," she says.
She landed a new job at an organizing cooperative, but it didn't last. At the last job fair she attended for a new hotel, she listed $15 an hour as her target wage, less than half what she was making at GE. The surprised recruiter said no jobs were available for more than $10 an hour. Allen says: "We can't support a family anymore on what they're willing to pay here in Ohio. It affects everyone: the parents, the children, the families."