Friday, January 8, 2016

Friday, January 8, 2016

The year in jobs 2015; Medicaid expansion improves health access; What savings?; and Education challenges


The year in jobs 2015
The December jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was released on Friday, with stronger than expected growth in the last month of the year. Jared Bernstein with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities digs in:


Payrolls were up 292,000 in December and the unemployment rate held steady at a low rate of 5% in another in a series of increasingly solid reports on conditions in the US labor market. Upward revisions for the prior two months added 50,000 jobs, leading to an average of 284,000 jobs per month in the last quarter of 2015. In another welcome show of strength, the labor force expanded in December, leading the participation rate to tick up slightly. December’s data reveals that US employers added a net 2.7 million jobs in 2015 while the unemployment rate fell from 5.6% last December to 5% last month. While the level of payroll gains did not surpass 2014’s addition of 3.1 million, it was otherwise the strongest year of job growth since 1999. Simply put, for all the turmoil out there in the rest of the world, the US labor market tightened up significantly in 2015. Based on some important indicators I discuss below, we are not yet at full employment. But we’re headed there at a solid clip, and that pace accelerated in recent months.


That is good news, but all is not well. As Bernstein notes, labor force participation (the share of adults working or looking for work) is still depressed–a hangover from the Great Recession–and there are still too many part-time workers who can’t secure full-time employment even though they want to.


Of course, in Louisiana the story isn’t nearly as rosy, as falling oil prices continue to wreak havoc on the state’s key economic sector.


Medicaid expansion improves health access
Low-income adults in Kentucky and Arkansas are more likely to have a regular primary care doctor and take needed prescription drugs than adults in Texas, according to a recent study. Why? Medicaid expansion. The New York Times reports:


The study, published in Health Affairs, found that Arkansas and Kentucky had significant reductions in the number of low-income adults without insurance from 2013 to 2014. In Arkansas, the number of uninsured for the group dropped to 19.4 percent from 41.8 percent; Kentucky’s rate dropped to 12.4 percent from 40.2 percent. The finding is consistent with recent surveys that put Arkansas and Kentucky among the states with the largest overall declines in people without insurance since the health law expanded coverage in January 2014. The study also looked at Texas, whose Republican leaders have refused to expand Medicaid under the law, and found far more modest gains in coverage and access to care among low-income people. Kentucky and Arkansas had similar increases in rates of regular care among low-income adults with chronic conditions, the study found, and similar decreases in the percentage of such adults who skipped medications because of cost.


What savings?

Considering that American families have been hit by stagnating wages and squeezed with higher costs for goods like housing and health care, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that two-thirds of households don’t even have $500 in cash stashed away for a rainy day. Maggie McGrath with Forbes magazine reports:


The car brakes go on the fritz. The refrigerator stops refrigerating. The dog gets his paws on a batch of chocolate chip cookies and earns himself a trip to the vet ER. These are just three of any number of things that could go wrong during the course of the year. Recovering from any one will set you back about $500, which means these scenarios fall closer to the “undesirable inconvenience” category than they do the “massive calamity” one. And yet, nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have enough money in savings to cover the cost of a single one of these unplanned expenses. According to a brand new survey from, just 37% of Americans have enough savings to pay for a $500 or $1,000 emergency. The other 63% would have to resort to measures like cutting back spending in other areas (23%), charging to a credit card (15%) or borrowing funds from friends and family (15%) in order to meet the cost of the unexpected event.


Education challenges
It isn’t a secret that compared to other states, Louisiana’s K-12 schools rank poorly. But new Quality Counts rankings published by Education Week confirm it. Only Mississippi and New Mexico rank lower on academic achievement than Louisiana. Coincidentally–or perhaps not–those states are also the only two that are burdened with higher poverty rates than Louisiana. On the bright side, the pace of improvement in Louisiana does seem to be increasing, says the Advocate’s editorial board:


With nearly half of public school students living in families who live at or below the poverty line, it’s not hard to imagine why Louisiana continues to face serious challenges in schools. But where we’re going is important, so our state ought to reflect on some real victories over the past few years, despite being 49th of the states and the District of Columbia in academic achievement in the new edition of Quality Counts, a ranking compiled by Education Week magazine. The ranking includes issues such as poverty levels in schools as part of its effort to look comprehensively at the factors having an impact on student achievement, and poverty profoundly affects the chances that the youngest students will be ready for school. But classroom performance is where our state’s educators can show significant gains, even if our overall rankings are low among the 50 states and D.C.


Louisiana’s fourth-graders improved, for example, at the second-highest rate on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the past two years. State Superintendent of Education John White and local superintendents, including charter school leaders, have other good news to report. Louisiana’s high school graduation rate — 74.6 percent — is an all-time high, although still lower than the national average, 82 percent. The state also ranks second nationally for fourth-graders on NAEP gains in reading from 2003 to 2015, and 12th in improvements by fourth-graders in math during the same period. Those gains are important.


Ultimately, Louisiana’s children would be better served if education reforms were paired with anti-poverty initiatives like a stronger Earned Income Tax Credit, investments in high-quality child care and early education, and a push for a higher wage for working parents.


Number of the Day
63 percent – Share of American households that don’t have $500 in savings (Source: Forbes)