Though Chicago continues to suffer from higher-than-average unemployment, the city cut its jobless rate at a faster pace than the nation's other large cities, according to a report to be released Wednesday morning.
The analysis was done by University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, who previously worked in President Barack Obama's White House with Rahm Emanuel and counts the Chicago mayor as a friend. The report compares employment levels in May 2012 to those in May 2011, when Emanuel took office.
While Chicago has the third-highest unemployment rate among the 10 largest cities, at 9.8 percent, that rate is down 1.7 percentage points from a year earlier — the strongest rate of recovery, the study found. Second was technology-driven San Jose, Calif.
Goolsbee's report also looks at the employment ratio, or share of the overall population that is employed. This statistic, unlike the unemployment rate, includes people who have stopped looking for work in its calculation. Chicago saw the greatest gain among the 10 largest cities, with a 2.1 percent increase.
The study, done in about a week using data that weren't seasonally adjusted, was undertaken after the mayor's office expressed interest in how the city's job growth compared with other large cities, Goolsbee said. But it was carried out independently, he said.
And while Emanuel has been beating the drum about jobs creation — making a stream of announcements about companies hiring, as he pushes initiatives to cut red tape and some business taxes — his role in bringing down the city's unemployment rate should be viewed as supporting, rather than starring, Goolsbee said.
"I think the mayor gets a credit for an assist, but most of the credit goes to the private sector itself," said Goolsbee, who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers during the time when Emanuel was Obama's chief of staff.
Emanuel has repeatedly said his role as mayor is not to create jobs but to create the conditions for job growth. But the rookie mayor keeps a running tally of private-sector hiring and has boasted of a significant drop in local unemployment since he took office.
"This report is a strong initial indication that Chicago is moving in the right direction and our policies are delivering positive results for the local economy," Emanuel said in a statement to the Tribune. "While I am pleased unemployment is shrinking at such a fast pace compared to other cities, I will not be happy until every Chicagoan who wants a job is able to find one."
Urban strategist Robert Weissbourd said mayors can make a difference, and that Emanuel has done so through a variety of steps, including consolidating city agencies, streamlining the permitting process and creating an infrastructure trust to attract private investment in public works.
"He gets some credit for helping to change that culture," said Weissbourd, president of RW Ventures LLC. "For a decade we were doing poorly. We have a lot of economic assets, but they were underperforming."
Weissbourd said he trusted Goolsbee's data. He is "a smart and credible guy; he doesn't need to do anybody any favors."
Goolsbee's report uses May data, the most recent available on a city-specific level. Using April data would have painted a less dramatic snapshot, with a drop in unemployment of only 0.6 percentage points over the previous April, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The jobs recovery being heralded by Emanuel's administration is not unique to the city but extends to the suburbs, according to federal data analyzed by the Tribune. Both the city and the surrounding eight-county suburban region saw a 2.5 percent increase in employed residents from May 2011 to May 2012, using data that weren't seasonally adjusted.
"Over the past couple of decades, unemployment rates in the city of Chicago versus its suburbs have been converging," Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago economist Bill Testa said last week in an email interview on employment trends. He noted that the city is attracting more college-educated workers while the suburbs are becoming more diverse. Still, poverty and unemployment rates remain higher in the city, with the suburban unemployment rate in May at 8.1 percent, just a shade greater than the national rate of 7.9 percent. The national rate was down 0.8 percentage points in May compared with a year earlier.
The pickup in Chicago's jobs recovery came after a very modest improvement from 2010 to 2011, and a devastating downward spiral before that. Its unemployment rate in May 2011 was 4.6 percentage points higher than in May 2008, with only Los Angeles performing worse, according to Goolsbee's report.
"When manufacturing fell over the last decade, Chicago fell too," said Testa, director of regional programs at the Chicago Fed, noting that the city's economy, while diversified, remains strongly linked to manufacturing. "Manufacturing fell further during the downturn, and bounced back harder than the general economy since then."
The city also took hits due to the financial crisis and the downturn in the housing market, Goolsbee said. Now, "credit is loosening again," he said. "Business services, we've always been pretty strong in, and health care, plus manufacturing and transportation are rebounding pretty strongly."
Still, cautiousness remains.
"Of course, this is all within the context of overall subpar growth for our nation, with unemployment rates unacceptably high," Testa said.