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National Editorial & Columnists

EDITORIALS ELSEWHERE: The 3.5% jobless rate a boon to low-skill workers

Here's hoping that the Midwest will someday no longer be known as the 'Rust Belt'

Depending on your age now, your memory for anguish and your luck at the time, you may not recall the double-dip recessions that devastated so many Chicagoans and other Midwesterners in the early 1980s. For those who lost their jobs, or woke up daily fearing that they would, it was a soul-crushing passage. From the industrial cities of central New York state west to the taconite mines of Minnesota’s Iron Range, the insulting nickname “Rust Belt” overrode the proud phrases “Factory Belt” and “Steel Belt.”

Late in 1982, America’s unemployment rate surged to 10.8%. Rockford’s rate was an agonizing 25%.

So we greet with humility and gratitude the news that the U.S. jobless rate now has fallen to 3.5% – the lowest in the half-century since 1969. What’s most heartening is that this jobs boom is helping the less-educated, low-skill Americans who’ve missed out on other, weaker jobs recoveries.

Mark this moment: Millions of American job seekers have prayed for it. The U.S. economic expansion now in its 11th year – having dodged that recession near-miss in 2015 – is bringing jobs to the long-jobless. The unemployment rates for workers without high school diplomas and for Hispanic Americans and African Americans are the lowest ever recorded. The rate for workers too discouraged to look for work – even in a jobs boom, they exist – and for underemployed Americans, typically part-timers seeking full-time jobs, is the lowest in 2 decades and near a record bottom. And wages nationwide, up 2.9% from a year ago, continue to outpace inflation.

All of which reminds us that while federal initiatives to reduce inequality produced slow economic growth for many years after the Great Recession, federal tax reform and deregulation have, by contrast, driven robust hiring. So many people are coming off the sidelines that U.S. employers haven’t yet run out of workers to hire. Cue the bromide that the best anti-poverty program is a job.

After Friday’s federal jobs report, The Wall Street Journal noted that, a decade ago, many economists thought a 5% jobless rate amounted to full employment, with the economy in balance and inflation neither rising nor falling. How long can 3.5% unemployment, with the economy still growing, continue? Beats us. The global economy is slowing, as is U.S. manufacturing.

That said, we’re amused by the doom-and-gloom economists and politicians who, in recent years, have confidently predicted five of the last zero U.S. recessions.

But we once again declare, with 100% accuracy guaranteed to Tribune subscribers, that America’s next serious recession truly is approaching! The only question is when it arrives. Maybe sooner, maybe later. Again, beats us.

For now, though, we’ll celebrate the fact that a record high 158,269,000 Americans have jobs. May we never return to the corrosive Midwestern joblessness that helped give the Rust Belt – a term now in welcome decline – its nickname.

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