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Experts Find Some Common Ground On Ohio Economy

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Ohio’s economy may be improving, but in many ways the state is still struggling nearly six years after the end of the Great Recession. Experts have different ideas on how to help the economy get stronger.  Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.

Recent reports say Ohio’s economy continues to grow, and the state’s unemployment rate has been steady or falling for at least the last six months. But the labor policy research group Policy Matters Ohio says there’s still a lot of work to do before the state can be declared “fully recovered” from the Great Recession. Amy Hanauer is the founding executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, and said most states and the country have recovered all the jobs they lost in that economic decline that ended in June 2009. “And Ohio still needs 35,000 more jobs just to get back to where we were going into the last recession,” Hanauer said. “And we’ve lost jobs in manufacturing, we’ve lost public sector jobs. We just lost jobs in most of our sectors and the jobs where we do job growth tend to be low-wage jobs.”

The state’s leading conservative think-tank doesn’t agree with Policy Matters Ohio often. But Statehouse liaison and policy analyst Greg Lawson agrees that the job growth picture in Ohio hasn’t been good – and says the state has lagged the nation in that category for decades.  Lawson said between 2000 and 2010, Ohio lost more public sector jobs than any state in the country except Michigan. “It’s not surprising when you look at those indicators that there are still problems,” Lawson said. “We’re still dealing with a hangover and there’s a lot more that we need to do to turbo-charge not just a recovery to get back to where we were before the recession but to grow us on a sustainable basis where we’re back to where Ohio was when we think about the glory days.”

Hanauer said she continues to be depressed by some things that never seem to go away in Policy Matters’ annual analysis of Ohio’s economy – such as high income inequality and the gap between wages of workers of different races. “I think if we want our economy to be more inclusive, we’ve got to get a handle on this. And the thing about the race-wage gap that’s so distressing is that that is true even when we control for education,” Hanauer said. “So workers with the same level of education still don’t earn as much if they’re African American as if they’re white in the state of Ohio.”

And Hanauer said she’s concerned that worker productivity continues to rise in Ohio and nationally, but worker pay hasn’t kept up with that. Lawson agreed that’s a concern. “There is a worry there, and I think we have to be very cognizant of the fact that as we continue to see technology do more and more things, we’re going to see a greater return on capital sometimes,” Lawson said. “This gets us to the point where we’re going to have to be educating folks, getting people ready to navigate this world so that we can continue to have productivity gains and close some of that.”

But Lawson and Hanauer go in two extreme directions when they’re asked what can be done about these lingering economic concerns. Hanauer has some specific suggestions: “Certainly we could raise our minimum wage in Ohio and nationally – that is far below what it was at its peak level. And I think that the other thing is that we need to be making it easier, not harder, to join a union.”

Lawson couldn’t disagree more. “I think that unfortunately those two particular policy issues are going to increase the problems that you see. They’re going to make these numbers worse,” Lawson said. “Raising the minimum wage is going to keep low-income folks from ever getting a job in the first place.” And Lawson says Ohio should consider becoming a so-called “right to work” state and ban workers from being required to join unions to stay competitive with Indiana and Michigan, which just did that. And there have been rumors that a “right to work” bill will be introduced soon in the legislature, which is dominated by Republicans.

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