BOOK OF JOB: Pa.'s unemployed feel tested by Corbett's belt-tightening policies

Posted: December 21, 2012

DAVID WENGERT, a 29-year-old native of suburban Upper Dublin who returned to Philadelphia to earn his master's degree in social work, thought he'd landed his ideal job here in 2011.

But Wengert had only been on the job at the nonprofit Campaign for Working Families - helping working-class folks prepare taxes and offering financial advice - less than a year when he and most of his co-workers got laid off.

The reason? Gov. Corbett and lawmakers in Harrisburg pulled the plug on $300,000 in state funding - one of many casualties as Pennsylvania sharply cut money for anti-poverty programs.

The worst moment of the five months that Wengert was out of a job came during a three-week period when the unemployment checks stopped, followed by a plot twist that Franz Kafka would have appreciated: No one would answer his phone inquiries where because the Corbett administration had also closed a call center and fired 100 workers.

The plight of workers like Wengert, the call-center staffers and thousands of other Pennsylvanians laid off from government or government-funded jobs in the last two years is an important reason for an alarming trend.

For the first time in six years, the unemployment rate in the Keystone State is worse than the national average. The most recent stats from October show state joblessness at 8.1 percent, while the comparable U.S. figure was 7.9 percent, dipping to 7.7 percent in November.

That's quite a turnaround from January 2011, when Republican Corbett took office after running a campaign in which he quipped his three top issues were "jobs, jobs, jobs." The Pennsylvania unemployment rate of 8 percent then was lower than it is now, and was a full point under the then-national rate of 9 percent.

What went wrong for Corbett?

Mark Price, a labor economist with the liberal-leaning Keystone Research Center, said a key factor is that roughly 20,000 jobs were lost in education during 2011-12 - largely the result of steep cuts in state funding. The school layoffs, he noted, were more than the number of private jobs added by gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a cornerstone of Corbett's economic policy.

"It's hard for a governor to make a real impact, but they can do boneheaded things at the wrong time," Price argued. "And laying off those teachers was a factor."

Not surprisingly, aides to the governor and his ideological allies beg to differ. Their counter-narrative is that by keeping his pledge not to raise taxes and by easing the regulatory burden on business, Corbett has set the stage for continued growth in the private sector.

And as for Pennsylvania's disappointing unemployment stats, Corbett's backers note that a key element in the rise has been more people coming back into the labor market, especially in the Pittsburgh area where a stable jobs picture during the downturn may be attracting new workers. Labor force participation has grown by 2.4 percent in the last year.

"We see that people are moving - we're getting people from New York and New Jersey," said Nate Benefield, the director of policy analysis for the right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation. Indeed, the fracking boom upstate may also be a factor, with workers from oil states like Texas and Oklahoma packing motels in some rural counties.

Kelli Roberts, Corbett's deputy director of communications, said the cuts in social services and education have been outweighed by 105,000 new private-sector jobs in the last 20 months, and Pennsylvania's lower-tax environment should lead to continued growth.

"There's a climate here that gives our businesses and other businesses looking to move here comfort, that gives them more confidence - and a lot of time that translates into a willingness to create more jobs," said Roberts.

But normally when an economy climbs out of a recession, government adds jobs along with the private sector, as happened during the so-called Reagan recovery of 1983-84. Experts have said were it not for the frigid climate for public-sector hiring, the U.S. jobless rate would be a whole percentage point lower. In Pennsylvania, workers like Wengert have been stuck in that blizzard.

"I tapped into a lot of my savings to do what I needed to do," said Wengert, who is single, lives in West Philadelphia and just this month finally found a new job with Community Legal Services. "I was lucky to have savings."

Unemployed Philadelphian Mark Reynolds, a union insulator who lives in Port Richmond and has been out of work since mid-October, has not been so fortunate.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this is what life would be like at age 42," said Reynolds, who was relieved to scrape up just enough for his rent before Thanksgiving, only to see his car die and leave him with no way to get around.

The building trades have also suffered job losses recently. The figures show that Pennsylvania lost 1,100 construction jobs in October and more than 10,000 slots over one year.

The Keystone Research Center's Price said that the Corbett administration and lawmakers could have turned the tide on construction jobs if they had decided to finance badly needed repairs to the state's crumbling infrastructure.

"Infrastructure investment should have been a priority - it's cheaper to do when there's a recession and borrowing costs are lower," said Price, noting that construction bids are also lower during a downturn. "That advantage will disappear."

Corbett now says that he will finally push for an infrastructure initiative in 2013, his third year in the governor's mansion. But he's also said that his No. 1 priority for the new year will be yet another belt-tightening measure: pension reform.

A jobs initiative can't come soon enough for laid-off workers like Port Richmond's Reynolds, especially since it's not at all clear that Washington will continue to offer extended unemployment benefits after the so-called "fiscal cliff" situation plays out in January.

He's already mortified that he had to borrow a few dollars from a friend to make it between his jobless checks.

"I'm just a single guy," Reynolds said. "Imagine if I had two or three or four kids - I just can't fathom that."


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: Attytood.com

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