That was the word I mumbled when I saw the headline data from December's employment report for the region's states. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' (BLS) latest regional and state employment and unemployment report showed that total job growth was a paltry 6,000 for Sixth District states, well below the 31,700 increase logged in November and a similar 31,500 rise in October. Individual state reports were mixed, with Florida and Georgia adding a net 7,300 and 3,700, respectively. Alabama gained 1,100 while Louisiana saw a net increase of only 600. Losing jobs were Tennessee (down 3,100) and Mississippi (down 3,600).
After the U.S. gained 200,000 net new jobs in December, I expected a better report for the region. We've written before about how the region saw deeper job losses than the United States as a whole during the recession and how our employment recovery has been, well, rather tepid. In the three months preceding December, the region experienced somewhat stronger job gains—the strongest pace since the recession began, in fact. In that light, our inability to maintain employment growth momentum in December was a real letdown.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to seek out silver linings, I took a step back from my disappointment and remembered that one month of lousy data does not a trend make. Also, it's hard to dismiss the fact that four of our six states added to payrolls in December, and two of those—Florida and Georgia—were among the hardest-hit states in the country when it comes to job losses during the recession, Additionally, Georgia has been among the weakest in terms of job creation during the recovery. So while the headline number of a gain of 6,000 may be modest, there is some good news there.
More positive news can be seen from the report on unemployment from the BLS's regional and state number for December. Unemployment rates in all Sixth District states declined, and the aggregate unemployment rate for the region fell from 9.5 percent to 9.3 percent. While still elevated, we're definitely moving in the right direction. We had concerns that the decline in unemployment rates may be driven by discouraged workers dropping out of the labor force. Atlanta Fed research economist and policy adviser Julie Hotchkiss has looked into this and wrote last April that "[t]he question remains whether the economy will continue to create enough jobs both to entice people back into the labor market and continue to reduce unemployment at the same time."
The data from our states in this regard are encouraging. Every state in the region has logged declines in the number of people reporting that they are unemployed over the past few months. In fact, the number of unemployed in the region has been declining since July 2011 and dropped by 170,300 in the fourth quarter alone. In addition, state labor forces have been largely stable or increased. The ongoing decline in initial claims for unemployment insurance is also a good sign.
True, unemployment remains elevated throughout the region, and December's job gains for the region as a whole were disappointing. Yet, it's important to note that job gains were positive in four of the six states in the District and that unemployment rates continued to drop.
Also, "rats" spelled backwards is "star." OK, I'm reaching with that one.
By Mike Chriszt, an assistant vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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