From the Record:
Employment statistics are a telling barometer of the health of the economy, and even small changes are scrutinized.
Monthly announcements, from Washington and each state, report the two key figures — jobs added or lost, and the unemployment rate — and the underlying statistics that shape them.
Yet New Jersey’s monthly jobs report under Governor Christie, who has made the recovery of the state economy a top priority, appears designed as much to boost the appearance of well-being as it is to convey the raw — and often unpleasant — economic facts on the ground as the economy continues to struggle.
Sometimes a key statistic is buried in the body of the press release, as other, less-timely figures are elevated to the headline or first paragraph. Long-term trends that put the state’s economy in a better light are emphasized, and sometimes contextual information — comparing the state’s unemployment rate to the nation’s better rate, for example — is omitted. And the release usually includes an upbeat quote from the Treasury Department’s chief economist, Charles Steindel, a Christie appointee.
In January, for example, the state reported a loss of 36,300 jobs in December, a massive decline that approached twice the biggest single month’s loss — 22,300 jobs lost in March 2009 — in the entire recession.
Yet the figure didn’t make it into the release headline, or even the first paragraph. Both focused on a drop in the jobless rate, from 7.8 to 7.3 percent, the second big drop in consecutive months. The release quoted Steindel saying: “Despite these preliminary estimates, we anticipate that the New Year will see resumption in New Jersey’s job growth.”
Neither that release, nor a previous one highlighting the decline in the jobless unemployment rate in November, mentioned that, as economists pointed out, the drop was driven almost entirely by people leaving the labor force — not by unemployed workers getting jobs.
James Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said the Christie administration’s handling of the jobs release is no different from his predecessors.
“That’s always been the case. If it’s a bad jobs report for the month, they will take a different angle,” he said. “They will always try to put a positive spin on it. … So it’s really business as usual.”
But Patrick O’Keefe, director of economic research at the accounting firm CohnReznick, who watches the state job figures closely, says the tactic is more pronounced under Christie.
“What we see now, of late, is a selective reading of numbers through what appears to be a political prism, not an analytical prism,” said O’Keefe, who described elements of the most recent release as “trying to put some rouge on the pig, and the pig remains ugly.”