Today, we're going to talk about unemployment.
And given that we're two weeks away from hotly contested presidential and congressional elections, that means we're actually talking about politics.
The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation on Friday dropped its latest jobs numbers – the last state figures we will see before Nov. 6 – into the middle of several intense national and state races. The numbers show a statewide jobless drop to 11.8 percent in September, down from 12.1 percent in August and 13.6 percent in September 2011. In Las Vegas, the rate dropped to 11.5 percent, down from 12.3 percent in August and 14 percent in September 2011. The employment department seasonally adjusts statewide rates, but not local ones, so area jobless levels can vary more.
The numbers didn't wow economists but caught the attention of political campaigns. Challengers and their supporters had plenty to say about the report, taking credit for improvements, assigning blame for continued troubles and saying things would be better if voters hand them the reins of power.
Take Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is backing his party's Senate candidate, Rep. Shelley Berkley, among other Democrats. In a statement, Reid called the jobless decline "encouraging" but said Nevada's middle class needs additional support. Yet, even as Democrats have worked hard to create jobs, provide tax relief to the middle class and help small businesses innovate and hire new workers, Republicans have stood in the way, Reid said, holding working families hostage "on behalf of millionaires and billionaires."
"I'm confident we can speed up our economic recovery if Republicans choose to work with Democrats to create jobs," Reid said. "Nevada can continue its recent momentum when Republicans finally decide to put politics aside and start to focus on creating jobs and supporting the middle class."
Not so fast, said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., the incumbent in Congressional District 3.
Heck agreed the numbers gave hope but said Washington – read Democrats – has issued "far too many policies" that discourage hiring and keep the state from its full economic potential. Heck cited "burdensome regulations on small businesses, uncertainty over future tax rates and mandates and taxes on small businesses in the health care law."
"It is clear that the president's policies have not created the type of robust recovery he promised or that Nevadans expect," Heck said.
Berkley, who is running against incumbent Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., weighed in, saying Nevada's families would enjoy more economic opportunity if "Washington Republicans like (Heller), Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney drop their insistence on prioritizing the wealthy few, Big Oil companies and other Wall Street interests at the expense of hardworking families."
Heller shot back: "It's clear that the deficit-fueled stimulus, big government programs, bailouts and stifling regulations have not created economic recovery here in Nevada or nationwide. I truly believe Nevada's best days are still ahead of us, but in order to turn our economy around, it's going to take solutions that take our nation in a different direction, encourage long-term economic growth and get the great state of Nevada back to work."
Will numbers influence election?
Nevada was one of nine presidential swing states that saw jobless rates fall or hold steady from August to September. Rates also dropped in Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina. Joblessness held steady in New Hampshire and Virginia. In three of those states – Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire – the number of jobs declined, indicating that unemployment fell or stayed flat not because of economic growth, but because discouraged workers left the labor force.
Jobless declines could help President Barack Obama at a critical time. With 18 days until Election Day, some polls have shown GOP challenger Mitt Romney gaining momentum in key states.
The Labor Department reports rates fell in 41 states last month, rose in six and were unchanged in three.
Still, local observers say there is nothing to brag about in the newest numbers, and the data won't budge Nevada's campaign needles in either direction.
Nevada's declines came partly from a small reduction in the workforce, as discouraged workers stopped job-hunting. Stronger-than-average seasonal job growth in public education and increases in finance, business and professional services also helped.
But Las Vegas typically sees a big bump in seasonal employment in September, so the newest numbers aren't unusual, said Steve Brown, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In fact, 2011's local August-to-September jump of 9,600 new jobs was stronger than this year's gain of 8,400 jobs, Brown said.
What is more, year over year, Las Vegas' employment base grew just half a percent.
"There is improvement, but we're not seeing very strong growth, so I don't think there's a lot to crow about," Brown said. "I don't think there's anything in these numbers that changes the dynamics of the election."
It's also tough to point fingers or score brownie points in some races, Brown said. Heller and Berkley are both in Congress, while neither Republican Danny Tarkanian nor Democrat Steven Horsford, both vying for Nevada's new 4th District seat, serve in Washington. With neither race featuring an outsider challenging a Washington insider, the numbers are likely "a wash" for both sides, Brown said.
State officials cautioned not reading too much into August-to-September jobless declines because month-to-month stats can vacillate significantly. And though the broader economy "is slowly moving in a positive direction," it's still recovering, said Bill Anderson, chief economist for the state employment department.
Private-sector jobs were up more than 12,000 statewide in the first three quarters of 2012, but that is a fraction of the 170,000 jobs Nevada lost in the downturn.
"That's the overall theme. We've been seeing some more encouraging numbers of late, but we have such a big hole to dig out of, and it's important to keep that in perspective," Anderson said. "The news is good, and the news is welcome, but we have a long way to go."
And though the numbers look positive "on the surface," the Las Vegas market has seen four people quit seeking work for every one who found a job in the past 12 months, said Brian Gordon, a principal in local research firm Applied Analysis. That's 22,300 discouraged workers, compared with 5,100 new jobs, year over year in September. Discouraged workers drive down unemployment because they don't count in official numbers.
Nevada's numbers mirror recent national trends. The national unemployment rate fell to 7.8 percent in September, down from 8.1 percent in August. Much of that decline came from workers quitting the labor force or finding part-time work. Part-timers who would rather work full-time count in a broader unemployment metric that also includes discouraged workers. Throw in the underemployed and the discouraged, and jobless rates are considerably higher, at nearly 15 percent nationally and more than 22 percent statewide. Nevada has led the nation in joblessness since May 2010.
Anderson said state numbers don't reflect how many of Nevada's new jobs in September were part-time.
What is known: Plenty of Nevadans, including the 112,500 locals who are still out of work and looking, keep treading water, as they have for months or even years, Gordon said. That status quo will probably translate into little impact on how Nevadans and Las Vegans see the future.
"The Nevada economy continues to struggle in a number of areas, and the timing of these latest data are not going to have a material effect on perceptions of the economy," Gordon said. "For those struggling to find work today, the situation remains much the same. Those fortunate enough to have a job in the current environment continue to be thankful for those opportunities. There just isn't a material shift that's taken place in recent weeks or months."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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