Editorial: SC job numbers often not what they seem

January 21, 2014 

Gov Nikki Haley delivers her 2013 State of the State address.

— WHEN MARK Sanford was running for governor, he loved to criticize then-Gov. Jim Hodges’ jobs numbers. Those aren’t actual jobs, he would say; they’re job announcements. When I become governor, he said, I’m going to come up with new metrics to measure how well I and my Commerce Department are doing.

And once he was elected, he tried to roll out some other sorts of measurements. But before you knew it, Mr. Sanford was doing what all the governors before him had done: talking about companies’ promises to bring new jobs to our state, as though the new jobs were a sure thing, and here.

Which is to say that Gov. Nikki Haley is following a long-honored tradition among S.C. governors when she overstates her economic development record.

As The Associated Press reminded us recently, the “new jobs” the governor boasts about in nearly every speech aren’t all new jobs. They might one day be. But today, they’re promises of new jobs. Her total represents a combination of jobs that actually exist and jobs that someday will exist and jobs that companies have promised to bring but, for any number of unfortunate reasons, won’t. Moreover, like her predecessors, the governor doesn’t subtract out job losses that have occurred on her watch.

Two things set Gov. Haley apart from her predecessors on this count. First is how persistent she is about tossing out those numbers, frequently failing even to throw in subtle disclaimers that at least close listeners would catch.

Second is the fact that she includes jobs that her Commerce Department has not recruited, including some retail jobs. The absence of such numbers in the past was largely a practical matter: The Commerce Department doesn’t, and probably couldn’t, keep track of the jobs it’s not involved in recruiting. By including those numbers — most dramatically, 4,000 Wal-Mart jobs — the governor makes it impossible to compare her record directly to those of her predecessors.

That’s not to say that the numbers are irrelevant. It’s to say that we need to remember what they are — and aren’t. Even when governors seem determined for us to forget that.

A better measure of economic development is how the unemployment rate changes during a governor’s tenure, and how that compares to the numbers nationally. South Carolina’s unemployment rate has dropped from 10.5 percent when Ms. Haley took office in January 2011 to 7.1 percent in November. Over that same period, the national rate dropped from 9 percent to 7 percent. So we’re improving faster than the national average, but we’re still above the too-high national average. (And our wages still are too low.)

Of course, that’s not a perfect measure either, since some new jobs always will be the fruition of those job announcements the previous governor claimed, but at least these numbers look at actual South Carolinians who are working, and in the end that matters far more than who’s responsible for those jobs.

Nobody disputes that Gov. Haley has been devoting a tremendous amount of attention to recruiting jobs. Nor would anyone dispute that she’s had a good run of it so far, and we are all better off as a result of that. But when she throws out those new jobs numbers, at Wednesday night’s State of the State address and elsewhere, just remember that they don’t mean as much as they seem.

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