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This story was originally published on January 31, 2023.
COLUMBUS, Ga. — The number of gainfully-employed people in the Columbus metropolitan statistical area (MSA) has fallen for the past 23 years, according to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as compiled by FRED: Federal Reserve Economic Data.
The Columbus MSA is the area defined by the U.S. Census Bureau to be economically anchored to the Columbus area. Throughout this article, use of the term Columbus refers to the MSA as a whole.
We analyzed 23 years of tabulated monthly Columbus employment data from the BLS and cross-referenced it with the MSA’s total population to determine true rates of employment. We then performed the same calculations for the nation as a whole to produce a relative baseline. We then compared the Columbus employment rate to that national baseline.
Here’s what the data shows.
LONG-TERM EMPLOYMENT DECLINE
In Dec. 1999, Columbus had an employment rate of 44.77% with 126,321 gainfully-employed residents out of its total population of 282,164.
That rate was the highest the city has since seen.
From its peak in Dec. 1999, the Columbus employment rate steadily declined within a visually-recognizable trend pattern for the next 23 years through to the present day.
By Jan. 2021 — the most recent data published — Columbus’ employment rate had steadily dwindled down to a lowly 35.47%. Only 116,173 people were gainfully employed out of the total population of 327,536.
Even with a significantly-higher population in 2021, there were fewer employed people in the city than there were in 1999.
WELL BELOW THE NATIONAL RATE
When compared to the rest of the nation, the Columbus MSA’s current employment rate remains dreadfully lower than that of the U.S. as a whole.
Out of the entire U.S. population of 331,893,745 people in Jan. 2021 — the most recent data published— roughly 143,017,000 of them were gainfully employed. Expressed as a percentage, the U.S. had an employment rate of 43.09% in Jan. 2021.
Columbus, on the other hand, only had an employment rate of 35.47% for the same point in time; a full 7.62 percentage points behind the rest of the nation in Jan. 2021.
A CLOSER ESTIMATION
While population data for Jan. 2022 is not yet published for the Columbus MSA, we can estimate it by projecting forward the MSA’s previous-annum population drop. Doing so would give the Columbus MSA an estimated population of 325,939 people for Jan. 2022.
Since we do have published data on the number of employed people within the MSA for Jan. 2022, we can then calculate its employment rate based on our estimated population.
By following the above, the Jan. 2022 report of 118,215 gainfully-employed people in Columbus would give its estimated population of 325,939 an employment rate of just 36.27% in Jan. 2022.
Over the course of 23 years, the employment rate of the Columbus MSA — the percentage of the population that is actively going to work and is gainfully employed — has fallen from 44.77% in Dec. 1999 to a withering 36.27% in Jan. 2022.
Our city’s workforce is on metaphorical life-support.
EMPLOYMENT VS. UNEMPLOYMENT
While many officials and local news outlets like to focus on the unemployment rate, doing so paints a very skewed picture of the actual rate of employment in the Fountain City.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate “represents the number of unemployed people as a percentage of the labor force.”
That total labor force is the sum of those who are actively employed and those who are not employed but are actively seeking work.
By definition, the unemployment rate only counts those who are actively seeking employment; it does not include those who have given up on looking for work.
The employment rate, on the other hand, tells us what percentage of the total population is actually employed; it compares the metric of value to an all-inclusive baseline, whether they have given up looking for work, are taking a “gap year,” or are choosing to play video games in their mom’s basement with an unhealthy addiction to Red Bull.
Everyone is included in the calculation of the employment rate, and thus a far more accurate sense of the city’s workforce efficiency can be ascertained — and that number has consistently dwindled in Columbus for the last 23 years.
Fewer Columbusites are even bothering to look for work.
Should we be surprised that our city’s poverty rate has continued to rise for more than a decade as well? Is it really shocking to see the dramatic increase in homelessness this year after rates stopped declining in 2021 for the first time in years? Are we truly flabbergasted to learn that the number of evictions in Columbus has doubled from 2020-2022? Is any of this a surprise, or does it seem to fit the aMaZiNg poverty-centric dynamic?
THE BOTTOM LINE
For more than two decades, the number of gainfully-employed people in the Columbus MSA has consistently fallen to a rate far below that of the rest of the nation. We are below average. We have fallen behind our peers. There is nothing aMaZiNg about that.
This isn't a “pandemic problem,” either. That consistently-used excuse cannot explain the last 23 consecutive years. This is a long-term policy- and social-dynamics problem. The proof is in the publicly-available data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Perhaps city officials and their civilian counterparts at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce should consider that before they continue to print reports about how aMaZiNg our city is performing economically. It isn’t. Categorically. No amount of burying one’s head in the proverbial sand is going to change that.
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Facts are stubborn things — and we’ll keep publishing them, whether city officials like them or not.
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