The fact that our nation’s unemployment rate is approaching the low rate of 3.5% that was reached just prior to the pandemic should be a cause for celebration. But for a variety of reasons, the official unemployment number is misleading.
The employment situation is not as rosy as it may seem. There is a wide disparity among the states that can be explained by how much economic freedom they allow, including how severely each state shut down its economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider that the U.S. remains 1.6 million jobs short of our February 2020 high, just before the pandemic came to our shores. Since then, our population has grown by 3.8 million people but the labor force shrank by 174,000 workers.
The picture diverges for states. As demonstrated in our 2021 study, the states with the worst job recovery also imposed the harshest COVID-19 measures.
For example, two states with the severest lockdowns — California and New York — are also experiencing two of the worst job recoveries, with unemployment rates at least a full percentage point above the national average of 3.6% based on the newly released March 2022 data.
Conversely, Utah and Nebraska, who are among the states with the least severe lockdown policies, are tied with the lowest unemployment rate of 2.0%, well below the national average.
In measuring how states have rebounded, a better metric than the unemployment rate is the recovery in private employment. Only 16 states have recovered all the private jobs lost due to the shutdowns compared to February 2020. But if we account for each state’s pre-pandemic job growth trajectory, our analysis shows that Montana and Utah stand above the rest for exceeding our forecast of their private employment.
Idaho follows closely behind Montana and Utah, and then Wyoming, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Dakota, Arkansas, Maine, and Georgia to round out the top 10 performing states. Except for Maine and North Carolina, each one has a Republican trifecta (GOP controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office).
North Carolina leans Republican, and Maine is the anomaly having a Democrat trifecta.
What about the bottom 10 states in private-sector jobs recovery? They are Hawaii, New York, North Dakota, California, Maryland, Vermont, Minnesota, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Louisiana. Four of those have Democrat trifectas and four lean Democrat. Louisiana, the last state to make the bottom 10, leans Republican.
North Dakota — a Republican trifecta that had one of the least restrictive COVID policies — is a special case due to an unusual economic situation. Its pre-pandemic job growth numbers differed from all other states, and it also relies more heavily on mining and petroleum than any other state. Its petroleum industry went bust in 2014, causing private employment to peak in December 2014 that finally bottomed out in January 2017. Since then, its private job growth has been slow, less than 1% per year.
President Biden’s anti-fossil fuels executive orders, including the cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, have only made matters worse for North Dakota.
Putting this outlier aside, what accounts for this dramatic difference in recoveries between red and blue states? As already indicated, Republican governors were less severe with their lockdown policies.
For another, all Republican governors (with the exception of Louisiana) ended supplemental unemployment payments before they were set to expire last September. These payments contributed to some people receiving more than they would have had they been working. In fact, one study finds that those states that didn’t end these payments early contributed to 3 million fewer people in the labor force.
Underlying the difference is likely the extent of economic freedom in each state. Using the Economic Freedom of North America 2021 report published by the Fraser Institute, which is based on 2019 data, the top 17 states allowing for the most economic freedom either lean Republican or have Republican trifectas. In fact, 14 of them are the trifectas.
Eight of the bottom 10 have Democrat trifectas, with New York leading the pack, followed by California. The other two in the bottom 10 include Vermont that leans Democrat and West Virginia with a Republican trifecta.
The best path to prosperity is a job. Work brings dignity, hope, and purpose to people by allowing them to earn a living, gain skills, and build social capital that endures. Advancing policies that connect people with work, along with reducing barriers for new jobs and opportunities, should be our goal, rather than making a government the first resort for help that disconnects people from what work brings.
The red states are showing the way to achieve this sound policy. Other states should follow while things at the federal level look bleak. But as our founders desired, the system of federalism that breeds a laboratory of competition helps shed light on what works best to let people prosper.
Texans are facing a crisis when it comes to paying for their skyrocketing property taxes, inflated bills, and saving for a rainy day. In fact, many Texans are living with the fear that exorbitant taxes could take their home away or keep them from buying their first home. The Foundation has developed a balanced, practical solution to lower property taxes by eliminating the maintenance and operations (M&O) property taxes while also funding the needs for critical services.
Invited Testimony Before the Texas House Ways & Means Committee
Texas is a leader in the economic recovery from the severe spring 2020 shutdown recession. Texans have overcome many challenges especially since the state was fully opened in March 2021, without statewide mask, closure, or vaccine mandates since then—as these should be voluntary. The 87th Texas Legislature supported the recovery with the passage of many pro-growth policies like the nation’s strongest state spending limit, but there were missed opportunities like permanent, broad-based property tax relief. Given other states are drastically cutting or eliminating taxes, Texas must make bold reforms so it can remain an economic leader, support more opportunities to prosper, and withstand bad policies from D.C.
The economic shock from the shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were unprecedented. Never had state governors imposed stay-at-home orders that cut people off from their lives and livelihoods. Those costly policies were bad enough, but then came historic increases in deficit spending and money creation.
While these may have been well-intentioned policies early on, their repercussions—amplified by misguided macroeconomic policy since January 2021—continue to plague many Americans. The antidote is pro-growth policies.
There was a vibrant economy on the eve of this shock. In fact, about three quarters of the flows of people into employment were Americans returning to the workforce—the highest on record.
For context, 2.3 million prime-age Americans—people between the ages of 25 and 54—returned to the labor force during Trump, after 1.6 million left during the Obama recovery. This happened with a robust private sector providing many opportunities because the Trump administration focused on removing barriers by getting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 through Congress and providing substantial, sensible deregulation.
We often hear that these tax cuts were “trickle-down economics” or “tax cuts for the rich and big business.” But the change in real (inflation-adjusted) wages was positive across the income spectrum. The bottom 10% of the wage distribution rose by 10% while the top 10% rose half as fast. And real wealth for the bottom 50% increased by 28%, while that of the top 1% increased by just 9%.
The results show those tax cuts weren’t designed for the “rich.”
In 2019, the real median household income hit a record high, and the poverty rate reached a record low. Poverty rates fell to the lowest on record for Blacks and Hispanics, and child poverty fell to 14.4%—a nearly 50-year low. Clearly, Americans were doing well across the board, especially those who had historically been left behind.
These stellar results were from reducing barriers by government in people’s lives—a stark contrast to what happened by state governments during the pandemic and exacerbated thereafter by Biden’s big-government policies.
While there were similar spending bills passed into law during both administrations, it’s comparing apples and oranges.
Trump supported congressional efforts in March and April 2020 when huge swaths of the economy were shut down, 22 million Americans were laid off, and 70% of the economy faced collapse. In contrast, Biden substantially increased regulations immediately and passed a nearly $2 trillion spending bill in March 2021—an amount equal to approximately 10% of the U.S. economy, at a moment when the U.S. economy was already 10 months into recovery.
Another difference was that Trump introduced sunsets for emergency pandemic provisions so that they would expire. But Biden continued and expanded many of them, increasing dependency on government.
Through March 2022, employment is back up 20.4 million but remains 1.6 million below the peak in February 2020. While Biden touts the most jobs gained in one year in 2021, more jobs were recovered in just the two months of May and June 2020 than in all 12 months of 2021, and nearly two-thirds of this jobs recovery was during Trump. Moreover, job gains of 6.7 million in 2021 were far less than the glorified projections coming from the White House of around 10 million.
Just think if Biden had practiced the pro-growth policies of Trump.
Instead, inflation is at a 40-year high and looks to continue to soar, fueled by a host of self-imposed costly policies in Washington.
This includes Biden’s over-regulating of the oil and gas sector, massive unnecessary spending bills, and attempts to drastically raise taxes. And the Federal Reserve has more than doubled its balance sheet over the last two years, purchasing a majority of the $6 trillion increased national debt in that period, which is a 25% increase to $30 trillion.
These policies, which simultaneously boost demand while constraining supply, have brought the prospect of stagflation—high inflation and low growth—back for the first time since the late 1970s.
Rather than directly addressing the crisis, Biden has consistently deflected the issue by first doubting the reality of inflation to now falsely blaming it on corporate greed or Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the causes and consequences fall at his feet.
It’s time to return to the proven, pro-growth policies that worked during the Trump administration, along with an essential missing factor then of spending restraint by Congress. Doing so will provide a solid foundation for more opportunities to let people prosper.
This commentary was based on the remarks by Mr. Ginn and Mr. Goodspeed on a panel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s 2022 Policy Orientation.
When Uvea was 9, Oregon’s foster care agency couldn’t find a placement in-state, so it sent her to Montana—to a poorly supervised facility where she was drugged, physically restrained and verbally abused by facility staff.
“Can I say the two words she called me?” Uvea asked a lawmaker during a later legislative hearing. “They made me feel very uncomfortable. She called me a pervert and a prostitute.”
Remember, she was 9 at the time. Untold damage was done to the young girl—but one thing came of it that will benefit all Oregon foster children. Her story sparked an effort to reform Oregon’s child welfare programs, beginning with an efficiency audit. Following the audit, every single child placed out-of-state was brought back to Oregon without increasing the number of foster homes, simply because the state learned how to use its resources more efficiently. And that Montana facility has been shut down.
Today, Uvea is 11 years old and living in what she recently told state lawmakers is “the best foster home” she’s ever been in.
Too many government programs aren’t achieving their intended purpose. This doesn’t serve the intended recipients—like Uvea—or the taxpayers well. Next session, the Texas Legislature can utilize effective and powerful independent efficiency audits to determine how programs, including Child Protective Services, are performing, where waste can be cut, and what outcomes can be improved.
While traditional financial audits can uncover evidence of malfeasance, they only look at the money trail. An efficiency audit goes even further, investigating whether funds are being used for their intended purpose and whether they’re being spent efficiently toward desired outcomes. Bringing in an independent, private sector auditor, rather than the state’s auditor, prevents a potential collusive situation between government entities and provides a fresh perspective that can identify innovative solutions, counteracting the myopic tendencies of government bureaucracy.
Last session, the Texas Public Policy Foundation identified the need for independent efficiency audits of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), which contains CPS. Both TANF and DFPS have had problems achieving their intended goals.
DFPS is a major recipient of TANF dollars in Texas, which is intended to help strengthen families and promote self-sufficiency. DFPS is also responsible for administering the state’s foster care system. In response to the ongoing foster care crisis, the Legislature increased appropriations to the agency. Our internal analysis of corresponding DFPS expenditures raised significant concerns regarding the appropriateness and efficacy of those dollars spent.
Specifically, our analysis found that a significant portion of these funds were not getting to the families most in need. Rather, one third of the roughly $1 billion annually in TANF funds are allocated to DFPS, yet half of that third goes to administrative and overhead expenses—things like staff salaries and IT services. That’s money that could have otherwise been used towards its stated intent to help needy Texans.
Why was this happening?
TANF is primarily funded through a block grant from the federal government, with the rest funded by the state. States have flexibility in how they administer and distribute that funding. While this flexibility can be helpful, DFPS used TANF dollars to fill budget gaps rather than meet its goals. This misuse of TANF dollars by the department revealed a need to investigate whether other agencies were engaging in similar behavior.
When we advocated for the use of an independent efficiency audit, we specifically sought to investigate how well both TANF and DFPS were doing at achieving the intended goals of helping Texas families move from dependence to self-sufficiency.
Under the new laws passed in 2021 (HB 1516 and HB 2374), that question must be answered every four years before the start of a legislative session. Doing so allows legislators to critique agency appropriations requests more knowledgeably and to ensure taxpayer resources are generating intended outcomes.
Because these audits must stay within the bounds of current resources available to each department or agency, taxpayers are assured these efforts will not be used to grow government, but rather evaluate how government could be improved, reformed, or cut. Identifying opportunities to consolidate efforts across separate agencies for example, or when a governmental function might be performed more successfully by a community provider, can provide legislators and the public with solutions that will lead to better services to beneficiaries at lower costs to taxpayers.
Oregon, Wyoming, and Kansas are states that have made great strides because of their respective efficiency audits. Louisiana, likewise, recently did an internal efficiency audit of TANF, which the legislative auditor found much needed improvement to achieve the intended goals.
Texas Legislators should bring efficiency audits to every aspect of government to generate better outcomes and save taxpayer resources. Little children like Uvea are counting on them.
The shutdown recession from February to April 2020 was devastating, and the costly effects of the policy errors since then have been large and long-lasting. There must be a return to the dignity and permanent value of work instead of dependency on government from Washington’s big-government agenda and mandates related to COVID-19. The U.S. labor market is better, but improvements are needed. This is in spite of Congress adding $6 trillion in deficit-spending since January 2020 to reach the new high of $30 trillion national debt. And the Federal Reserve has monetized the vast majority of the new debt, leading to a 40-year high inflation rate. Given high inflation and a stagnating economy, stagflation is here for the first time since the 1970s. Congress and the Fed should stop overspending and overprinting money, respectively, and instead provide pro-growth policies so that Americans can improve their livelihoods.
Americans have less money than they had last year—though taxes haven’t been raised. So what’s the problem? Inflation, which has increased at a 40-year high annual pace of 7.9%. It acts as a hidden tax because we don’t see it listed on our tax bills, but we sure see less money on our bank accounts.
In fact, inflation-adjusted average hourly earnings for private employees are down 2.8% over the last year. This means a person with $31.58 in earnings per hour is buying 2.8% less of a grocery basket purchased just last February. “For a typical family, the inflation tax means a loss in real income of more than $1,900 per year,” stated Joel Griffin, a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
The hidden tax of rapid inflation has been avoided for four decades. But that’s understandable because we haven’t seen these sorts of reckless policies out of Washington since the Carter administration.
The policies from the Biden administration’s excessive government spending and the Federal Reserve’s money printing must correct course now before things get worse.
What’s causing inflation is being debated.
One claim is “Putin’s price hikes” stem from the Russian president’s invasion of Ukraine.
While this has contributed to oil and gasoline prices spiking recently, these prices—and general inflation—were already rising rapidly. This was because of the Biden administration’s disastrous war on fossil fuels through increased financial and drilling regulations, cancelation of the Keystone XL pipeline, and more.
Specifically, the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil is up about 110% since Biden took office, yet only up 21% since Russia invaded Ukraine. And to think, the U.S. was energy independent in the sense that it was a net exporter of petroleum products in 2019.
Another claim is the supply-chain crisis.
For example, the global chip shortage has contributed to a large shortage and subsequent increase in the average price of new vehicles—to a record high of $47,000, up 12% over the last year. This contributed to buyers switching to used cars, which has pushed the average price up to nearly $28,000, about 40% higher.
These two claims will likely be transitory price increases, though not sufficient to drive down overall inflation to what we’ve experienced for the last year-plus.
Inflation is persistent because of rampant government spending and money printing.
Larry Kudlow, who served as the director of the National Economic Council for President Trump, stated that inflation “is destroying working folks’ pocketbooks and devaluing the wages they earn, and the root cause of the inflation is way too much government spending, too many social programs without workfare, and vastly too much money creation by the Federal Reserve.”
Both political parties share the blame for too much government spending, which has caused the national debt to balloon to $30 trillion. Just over the last two years, the debt has increased by 25% or $6 trillion.
While some of that may have been necessary during the (inappropriate) shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the nearly $7 trillion passed in spending bills was not, especially the trillions by the Biden administration far after the pandemic had slowed and people were returning to work.
Laughably, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently argued that government spending is helping inflation and President Biden argued that he’s cutting the deficit. Both are false.
Government spending doesn’t change inflation because it just redistributes money around in the economy. And the deficit would only be rising from Biden’s big-government policies but he’s taking advantage of an optical illusion: one-time COVID-19 relief funding drying up and tax revenues rising partially from the effects of inflation.
Ultimately, the driver of inflation is from discretionary monetary policy by the Federal Reserve as it monetizes much of the $6 trillion in added national debt since early 2020.
The Fed did this to keep its federal funds rate target from rising above the range of zero to 0.25% by more than doubling its balance sheet to $9 trillion. More money is fueling the ugly government spending and bubbly asset markets that’s resulting in dire economic consequences.
Instead, we need to learn what Presidents Harding and Coolidge realized a century ago. This would mean a return to sound fiscal policy, monetary policy, and the dollar that built on the principles of America’s founding.
We need binding fiscal and monetary rules to hold politicians and government officials in check of we hope to tame inflation and return to prosperity.
In recent years, there’s been a growing consensus that the “Success Sequence” is a key pathway to avoiding poverty. Unfortunately, this prevailing theory doesn’t fully account for circumstances beyond one’s control. We need a more holistic approach to poverty prevention and alleviation.
Brookings Institution fellows Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill originally coined the “Success Sequence” in their book, Creating an Opportunity Society. The sequence notes that if you finish high school, get a full-time job, and marry before kids (in that order), you’re more likely to avoid poverty.
However, while research finds a strong correlation between this sequence and avoiding poverty (97% of Millennials), proof of causation has been more elusive, leaving gaps in how to achieve lasting poverty relief.
The Success Sequence doesn’t account for adverse situations beyond one’s control, such as the diminishing value of a high school diploma, availability of full-time jobs, accessibility to the workforce by the formerly incarcerated, and affordability of housing.
Today, one might do everything “right” and still experience poverty. Ultimately, the path to long-term poverty relief includes—but is not limited to—the Success Sequence.
To maximize opportunities for success, policies should remove obstacles often imposed by governments. This includes ensuring abundant job opportunities, addressing workforce and affordability issues, and streamlining safety nets.
Doing so would allow safety nets to fulfill their purpose as a trampoline to quickly spring people back into self-sufficiency rather than as a hammock that traps recipients into a cycle of dependency on government.
Recently, the Texas Public Policy Foundation launched the Alliance for Opportunity initiative with our friends at the Georgia Center for Opportunity and the Pelican Institute in Louisiana. This initiative promotes a strategic policy roadmap for these states that in many ways supplements the Success Sequence. It does so by working to keep vulnerable Americans on track, ensure everyone has a right to earn a living, and address poverty through the justice system.
One way is to reform education systems so that career and technical education funding is individualized and institutional funding is tied to employment and wage outcomes. Doing so will ensure students are better prepared for today’s jobs.
Consider the return-value funding model for the Texas State Technical College, a two-year institution with an emphasis on technical programs geared toward post-graduation employment. They partner with businesses, government agencies, and other education institutions to coordinate career development routes for students.
Notably, the Texas Legislature established an outcomes-based funding model for TSTC based on the annual wages of its graduates five years after graduation. Legislators across the country should utilize similar competency-based models to improve employment outcomes.
Policymakers should also be looking for ways to reduce or to remove burdensome occupational licensing requirements and encourage paid apprenticeships throughout the education system in order to protect the right to work and maximize the skills for in-demand jobs.
Occupational licensing overall has been shown to restrict the labor market, presenting a significant cost of entry to work, even as there is limited evidence that licenses increase the quality of goods, services, or public safety. States should instead look to implement a systematic process of identifying and removing overburdensome licensing regulations through processes such as a sunset review, while expanding universal recognition of licenses obtained in other states with similar requirements.
Moreover, lawmakers should align education and workforce programs to ensure students are able to learn and earn wages as they work. By improving the availability of paid apprenticeships, states can maximize opportunities to find meaningful education and employment. The State of Georgia’s program recently had more than 60% of youth apprentices receive a full-time job offer from their employer upon completion.
Finally, for those workers who lose a job unexpectedly, as 22 million Americans did during the government-imposed shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators should reduce disincentives to work by revamping and streamlining safety net programs.
One of the most common reasons recipients are discouraged from pursuing better employment outcomes is the “benefits cliff.” Because of the setup of safety-net programs, many recipients find that a small increase in earnings will result in a large loss of benefits. This creates a vicious cycle of dependency and despair.
States must flatten these “cliffs” by leveraging their flexibility with block grant programs and waivers in federal law while keeping the programs tied to work, training, or education, such as an empowerment accounts pilot program.
The Success Sequence is a noble, beneficial approach to help avoid poverty, but ultimately its application has gaps that should not be taken for granted. With the Alliance’s strategic policy roadmap, we hope to provide an improved situation with more opportunities in a flourishing civil society that helps those in need achieve financial self-sufficiency, dignity, and purpose faster and longer.
An MSNBC headline reporting on a recent interview of a White House economic advisor Jared Bernstein claimed that America has a “booming economy.” But that’s not what most Americans think about the economic situation.
The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index for March, which gauges how consumers feel about the economy, fell to a decade low at 59.4. This is a 5.4% drop from February and a 30% drop from March 2021.
The survey reveals Americans’ pessimism and uncertainty amidst the highest levels of inflation since the 1980s. Many Americans reported that they have had to reduce their quality of life and lower their living standards amidst the inflation crisis.
This crisis has been created by the Federal Reserve printing too much money to fund the overspending by Congress, and exacerbated by the Biden administration’s war against oil and gas that fueled higher energy prices and have been amplified by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The only positive news from the survey was slight optimism for the strengthening labor market. Survey statistics revealed that there was hope that the unemployment rate would continue to decline.
While there are reasons to be optimistic about the labor market’s increase in monthly nonfarm jobs—431,000 (with 426,000 in the private sector)—and the unemployment rate dropping to 3.6%, weaknesses remain.
For example, since the shutdown recession ended in April 2020, total nonfarm jobs are up 20.4 million but are still down 1.6 million from February 2020. This indicates that though the labor market is improving, but it’s not as strong as it was then.
And while the Biden administration touts the jobs created since he took office in January 2021, only 39% have been added since then while the other 61% were during the Trump administration.
Other unaddressed labor market weaknesses remain. Inflation-adjusted wages are down by 2.3% over the last year, a depressed prime-age (25-54 years old) employment-population ratio by 0.5 percentage point since February 2020, and a broader U6 underemployment rate of 6.9%.
Further adding to the concern in the labor market is a record high of 5 million more unfilled jobs (11.3 million) than unemployed people (6.3 million).
These ongoing weaknesses are shedding light on the impacts of big-government policies out of D.C., such as the “stimulus” checks, enhanced unemployment insurance, expanded child tax credits, and pandemic-related mandates, that have limited and are hindering the rebound of the American economy.
Instead, we must return to normalcy if we wish to give Americans more opportunities to prosper.
But that’s not happening. Paired with the inflation we’re dealing with stagnating economic growth, creating a period of stagflation for the first time since the 1970s.
Rising inflation is foreshadowing concerns of a future recession and economic crisis as American families are paying substantially more for products and services amidst reduced purchasing power.
Why is our economy out of control, and what can be done to mitigate the economic crisis?
The government imposed a “shutdown recession” from March to April 2020 that proved devastating. Amidst the shutdown, elected officials heightened Americans’ economic dependence on government through $6 trillion in deficit-spending that included programs which disincentivized working.
Two years later, there must be a return to the dignity and permanent value of work — instead of the dependence on the government that the Biden administration is promoting.
For example, the Biden administration’s irresponsible proposed budget of $5.8 trillion includes massive spending while raising and creating harmful taxes, such as the new “billionaire tax” that Sen. Joe Manchin already shot down. The result of this irresponsible budget would be an increase in the debt by 50% to $45 trillion over the next decade, which is highly optimistic given their unlikely rosy economic assumptions.
Given the likelihood of continued trillion-dollar deficits for the foreseeable future and the Fed keeping its target overnight lending rate low even as it raises the rate by printing more money means that more inflation and economic damage are to come.
But this doesn’t have to happen.
Congress should choose a different path, enacting pro-growth policies like those passed from 2017 to 2019, which will better provide Americans with opportunities to improve their lives and livelihoods. This should be paired with binding fiscal and monetary rules to stop Congress from overspending hard-earned taxpayer dollars and to stop the Fed from overprinting money that’s reducing families’ purchasing power.
We should stop the “booming economy” rhetoric and focus on how families are doing. The way to give them more opportunities to flourish is by removing obstacles imposed by government.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.