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Year in and year out, the economy plays a significant role in deciding important political races. That’s especially true now, as Oregon shakes off the lingering doldrums of the Great Recession.
"It’s been 17 years that we’ve had unemployment higher than the national average in Oregon," said Richardson, a state representative from Central Point. "When is that going to change?"
Oregon’s unemployment rate hasn’t dipped below the national rate since 1997? PolitiFact Oregon checked.
The last time Oregon’s monthly seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was lower than the U.S. rate, Beleiciks wrote, was February 1996, when Oregon was at 5.4 percent and the U.S. was at 5.5 percent. So it’s actually been 18 years since Oregon’s jobless rate was lower than the national average, he said.
As with anything involving the intersection of politics and economics, however, the matter doesn’t stop there, Beleiciks added.
In mid-2007, leading into the Great Recession, he wrote, the state’s jobless rate of 5.2 percent was just 0.2 percentage points higher than the U.S. average. As recently as February 2014, Oregon’s rate was a mere 0.1 percentage point higher, at 6.8 percent.
Beleiciks’ point: "Statisticians don’t consider Oregon’s unemployment rate to be significantly different than the U.S. when our rate is just a few tenths of a percentage point higher or lower."
The most recent numbers, for June 2014, showed a 0.7 percentage point difference, with Oregon at 6.8 percent and the U.S. at 6.1 percent. "Very close," Beleiciks said, "to the historical average difference."
Richardson, in the debate, didn’t specifically blame Kitzhaber in making his claim, though Richardson’s staff later confirmed that was the implication. Kitzhaber is in his third term as governor, serving from 1995 to 2003 and since 2011. He’s now running for an unprecedented fourth term.
We found an Oregon Employment Department report from February 2009 showing that the state’s unemployment rate had been higher than the national rate in 25 of the previous 33 years – meaning Oregon’s higher jobless rate long predates Kitzhaber’s first inauguration.
We also called B. Starr McMullen, an Oregon State University economics professor, to ask how much sway any one politician might have to reverse those lines.
"Not much," McMullen said. "If we could figure out why we are consistently remaining above the national average and the problem was solvable by government policy, we would have done that a long time ago."
Tom Potiowsky, former state economist and now chairman of Portland State University’s Economics Department, agreed. "You’ve got rural areas facing long-term unemployment because there are few jobs there and nowhere near the military contracts in Oregon that, say, Washington and California have," he said.
Richardson, in a recent debate with Kitzhaber, claimed that Oregon’s unemployment rate has hovered above the national rate for 17 years.
It’s actually been 18 years, but that covers the time frame of Richardson’s claim. Also, though a state economist said Oregon’s rate was sometimes statistically even with the national average, that feels like splitting hairs. Anyone looking up Oregon Employment Department statistics would find Oregon’s rate higher for the period Richardson cites.
Though Richardson implied that Kitzhaber was at fault, he didn’t say so directly at the debate, so we didn’t evaluate that as part of Richardson’s claim.
We find Richardson’s claim True.
Email from Nick Beleiciks, economist, Oregon Employment Department, July 31, 2014.
Oregon Employment Department report, "Why is Oregon's Unemployment Rate So High?" Feb. 9, 2009.
Telephone interview, B. Starr McMullen, economics professor, Oregon State University, July 31, 2014.
Telephone interview, Tom Potiowsky, chairman, Economics Department, Portland State University, July 31, 2014.
Email from Dennis Richardson for Governor Campaign, July 31, 2014.
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