The headline on the news release out of Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation yesterday sounded pretty great: "Private Sector Gains 18,700 Jobs Over-the-Year."
Read the body of the release, though, and you'll discover the actual news was not so great. In July, it says, Maryland actually lost 9,000 jobs, one of the worst performances in the nation and a distinct outlier in a month when 36 states and Washington, D.C., gained jobs. Not that the agency was dwelling on that. "Still, four out of seven months in 2014 have posted over-the-month total job gains," the release said. "Compared with July 2013, Maryland total jobs are up by 16,300. Maryland's private sector also gained 18,700 jobs over-the-year."
In a further exercise in looking on the sunny side of life, the agency went to some pains to explain that the U.S. Department of Labor's revised estimates for June confirmed a previous report that Maryland had gained 7,700 jobs and that the unemployment rate for that month was unchanged at 5.8 percent.
The July figure jumped to 6.1 percent, but hey, you gotta accentuate the positive, right?
In fact, that seems to be the specialty of DLLR whenever new employment numbers come out. When the news is good, the agency flat out says it, as in "Maryland adds 7,700 jobs in June," or "Maryland gains 9,300 jobs in April." When the news is bad, it still reports the numbers, but creatively.
In June, the headline was "Maryland Adds 22,100 Jobs Over the Year: Three out of five month in 2014 posted over-the-month job gains," though the actual news was a revision upward of 1,300 jobs in April combined with a drop of 1,300 jobs in May.
The release about the January jobs figures was particularly egregious. It's headline reported what sounded like great news: "Maryland unemployment rate drops to 5.8 percent," and the first paragraph only amps up the excitement — this represents the lowest Maryland unemployment rate since December 2008, it said. But oh, by the way, the release later noted, the federal government was reporting a loss of 9,800 jobs. And it was revising the previous year's job growth statistics downward so sharply that 2013 went from what looked like the best year for Maryland job growth since the recession to the worst. (The agency didn't mention that last bit of context.)
In an ideal world, we'd like to think that the state government would give the straight, unadorned truth about what's going on with the economy. But it is hard to come up with anything but a political explanation for the department's consistently rosy interpretations of the jobs figures. Gov. Martin O'Malley, coming to the end of his two terms and looking to the national stage, has crafted a narrative about his tenure that offers Maryland as a model for the nation in its focus on education, research and entrepreneurship. A so-so job market, or one with some inconvenient ups and downs, doesn't fit the story.
Lest you call us too cynical about something so inconsequential as a departmental press release that only a tiny fraction of Marylanders actually read, recall this. In 2010, amid Governor O'Malley's rematch with Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Democrat had been highlighting Maryland's job growth during the first several months of the year. Then, in August, DLLR briefly posted on its website a news release titled, "Maryland's Market Stalls During July." It further noted "declining consumer confidence and spending" and concluded that "Maryland's economic recovery faltered."
Emails released through a Public Information Act request by two Republican leaders in the legislature revealed a scramble at DLLR to pull down a report "diametrically opposed" to the "eventually-approved messaging." At one point, the agency's communications director wrote to other staffers "Whatever we can do to make it disappear, we need to do it. That's coming straight from the top."
The truth about Maryland's economy is that, like everywhere else, the numbers may go up or down in a given month, and statistical anomalies dealing with the way the jobs and unemployment surveys are conducted can have a meaningful effect on the results. Those who look at the monthly job figures and consistently cry doom and gloom are offering just as distorted a picture of reality.
But the federal government's budget cutbacks are unquestionably having an effect in Maryland, and the state would do well — particularly during a gubernatorial election like the one we're having now — to talk about strategies for diversifying the economy and coping with the likelihood of more government spending reductions in the future. But that won't happen if we let political spin get in the way of a forthright appraisal of the facts.
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