Another look southward

Employment in New York City, as is well known, continues to grow like gangbusters. New York City now hosts about 150,000 more jobs than it did before the Great Recession, and the number of jobs there has grown about 250,000 in the past four years. For the amusement of the statistically minded in Ulster County, the average number of new jobs within the big city each of the past four years has been equal to that of the entire Ulster County labor force.

Has the cornucopia of city jobs spread to the areas contiguous to it? The listing of New York counties by 2010 per-capita income provides one answer: Westchester, with a per-capita income of $47,814, ranked second in the state behind Manhattan’s $59,149. Nassau was third in the state and Suffolk fifth. Putnam was fourth and Rockland sixth. Further upstate, the 2010 census ranked Dutchess ninth and Orange fifteenth. Ulster County was ranked thirteenth to $28,954.

How has the remarkable record of Gotham job growth of the past four years affected job growth on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley? You might think that more people in those areas would decide their job opportunities would improve through commutation to New York City rather than finding work locally. If they are doing so, are they bringing home the extra money and spending it locally, creating more jobs in the local labor market? Or are they returning after work to their desolate bedroom suburbs?

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The New York labor statistics show that in the past few years there’s been a different pattern on Long Island than in the Hudson Valley. I’ll be damned if I know why. But let me provide the gross statistics (all labor-market profile numbers based on May 2013 data and May-to-May numbers), and you decide.

It seems that Long Island’s local job picture has recently been coming along nicely. Nassau and Suffolk counties have created almost 20,000 more payroll jobs than they had before the recession, and total employment in the past four years has increased by 55,000.

The lower Hudson Valley (Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties) shows a different recent picture. There the number of payroll jobs has decreased by about 15,000 from its pre-recessionary high, while total employment since the low point four years ago has improved by about 8,000. The lower Hudson Valley economy has so far come only halfway back from its nadir during the recession.

The recent record in Orange and Dutchess counties follow the Hudson Valley pattern. In 2013, employment in those counties is still 2600 jobs below its 2008 peak. Job recovery in the past four years has been an unimpressive 4100.

Ulster County’s record is even bleaker. Ulster, with total employment hovering between 60,000 and 65,000 for the past 16 years, is still 2500 jobs below its peak, and Ulster has actually lost 400 jobs in the past four years.

Ulster’s performance

Ulster’s longer-term record has been even more dismal than this data suggests. In the past 20 tumultuous years, New York City’s job total has increased 20 percent, while Ulster’s has been up only 4 percent. The corresponding numbers for longer-term job growth for Long Island have been 21.4 per cent, for the lower Hudson Valley 15.4 per cent, and for Dutchess and Orange counties 19 percent.

It’s clear that the departure of IBM more than two decades ago had an extremely destructive effect on the Ulster County economy. It’s also true that Ulster County is further upstate than its southern New York neighbors, allowing us to partake more easily of the nostrums of the nostalgic heritage of the post-industrial rust-belt wasteland.

The strength of Ulster County does not come from what it once was, but from what it could become. The county’s core potential, it seems to me, includes the beauty of its natural surroundings, the scale and quality of its community life, its closeness to New York City, and the mix of job skills of its inhabitants. (This fourth pillar requires considerable improvement, I regret to say.) With our potential unfocused, we have been stagnating in the economic doldrums.

Of course the Ulster County economy of the future will include traditional components such as manufacturing, tourism and agriculture. But it must also involve connecting more nimbly with the largest and richest labor market in the nation to our south. Our comparative advantage — that which we are better than anyone else at — will be realized, if it is found at all, only through connecting all the dots. And for that, regrettably, we will need vision and leadership, both factors of production in short supply.

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