The August unemployment rate of just 4.4 percent in metropolitan Gainesville, which includes all of Hall County, is both a positive sign of local economic trends and misleading in regard to how far the area has come since the recession ended.
“The monthly unemployment figures are not as telling as the overall trend, and the trend indicates we are adding jobs and participation in the workforce,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.
There are caveats, however.
David Mustard, an associate professor of economics at the Terry College of Business on the University of Georgia campus, noted that the unemployment rate does not include people who have stopped looking for work, and that number has remained high.
“This is becoming a bigger problem from a policy perspective,” Mustard said.
There are other factors at play, as well.
“We must remember that a decrease in the unemployment rate can be based on fewer people looking for work because they are discouraged and fewer people drawing unemployment compensation because they have maxed out their benefits,” said Wendy Glasbrenner, managing attorney for the Gainesville office of the Georgia Legal Services Program, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to low-income residents.
The number of initial claims for unemployment insurance declined by 392, or 43.9 percent, to 501 in August.
The August unemployment rate is down one-tenth of a percentage point from July. The rate in August 2015 was 4.7 percent.
The workforce has grown to 96,000 from 92,000 year-over-year.
Over the year, Gainesville gained 2,800 jobs, a 3.3 percent growth rate, up from 84,600 in August 2015. Most of the job gains came in the service industries.
Meanwhile the number of unemployed residents fell by 106 to 4,265.
“Some of that could be seasonal, but I suspect it also represents people that are returning to work for the first time in a while,” Evans said. “Anecdotally, we are seeing and hearing many employers are investing more resources in recruiting, retaining and training their talent.”
Poverty levels remain high, however, for many residents within the Gainesville city limits, where 10 of 16 census tracts have 20 percent or more of residents living below the poverty line.
Mustard said part-time work and low wages, which have not rebounded as strongly as job gains, could be a factor.
And for some businesses, rising health care costs make new hiring difficult and better wages less sustainable, Mustard said.
This all feeds into a less robust tax base and greater demand for government assistance.
“Even if it means more people have indeed found jobs, if they are minimum wage jobs, they are not going to be lifted out of poverty,” Glasbrenner said.