PLAINS TWP. — More jobs, lower pay.
That’s a brief, but telling statistic offered Thursday at the 2018 Indicators Forum released by The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University.
The report was discussed in detail at the forum held at the Mohegan Sun Pocono Hotel Convention Center with about 175 in attendance.
The report shows that the region’s labor market has improved in recent years, adding more than 5,500 jobs between 2012 and 2016. And the region’s unemployment rate has declined by more than three points since 2012.
That’s the good news.
The report also shows that while wages in the region did grow in 2016, they remain less than 80 percent of statewide averages. More significantly, about 1 in 7 people in the region live below the poverty line.
“Taken as a whole, the indicators show that progress is being made in Northeast Pennsylvania, progress that continues due to our regional approach in advancing the area,” aid Patrick Leahy, Wilkes University president and chairman of The Institute’s board.
Teri Ooms, executive director of The Institute, said the increase in the labor force and in jobs with a decrease in the unemployed constitutes a true unemployment rate decrease.
“I expect that we will continue to see job growth in small quantities based upon the sector, but much of our job opportunity is going to be replacement demand,” Ooms said. “This occurs as our baby boomers retire and their positions need to be filled.”
Ooms said the largest income bracket in the region is at $50,000 to $74,999. She said the region still has about 27 percent of heads of household in each county (Luzerne and Lackawanna) earning less than $25,000.
“So there is some reduction in poverty levels,” Ooms said.
Breaking out employment by industry, Ooms said health care, education and social assistance are the broadest categories. She said health care dominates with opportunities at all skill levels.
Other highlights of the report include:
• Demographics — Population/fluctuations — the growth we have had was from in-migration, not because births are increasing and deaths are decreasing.
• Education — Little fluctuation in graduation rate; mixed dropout rate.
“No clear patterns are emerging,” Ooms said. “We have noted that enrollment in private education has fluctuated with economic conditions. Regardless, enrollment in both have and will continue to see some decline because as we have noted earlier, there is a smaller younger population. So workforce issues are likely to continue. It will be more of an “employee” market. There should be continued pressure on wages and our higher education institutions face more competitive conditions.”
• Social Services —Ooms said this is an area that feels the effect of a growing senior population, of impoverished individuals and those with challenges.
“Across the board we see increases in cash assistance and food stamps regionally and we outpace the state,” Ooms said. “There has been some improvement in childhood poverty which is a good sign. But more intervention is needed if almost one-in-four of our region’s children are growing up in poverty. This impacts our future workforce, education systems, health care, public safety, and government systems. There are less children in our foster care system which is a positive sign.”
• Housing — Increase in construction costs and building permits for first time in a couple of years. Housing stock composition has not changed significantly, not much new construction despite study last year identifying development opportunities in accessible and senior housing.
Affordability is about 30 to 32 percent of income, hovering slightly above the state average because our wages are low. Foreclosures are down significantly in Luzerne County, slightly up in Lackawanna.
• Infrastructure & Environment — Transportation in the region is heavily based on personal automobiles — 80 percent of commuters drive alone, and another 11 percent carpool. Public transit users account for only about 1 percent of trips to work, according to this data.
About three-fourths of households (and rising) have Internet access at home, lower than statewide rate, which is at more than 80 percent. Use of gas and electricity for home heating have been growing, while oil heating has dropped in utilization.
• Public Safety — Property crimes have trended down in the region. In both counties, property crimes, which include burglary, larceny theft, arson, and motor vehicle theft, reached 10 year lows in 2016.
Violent crimes have shown a less clear pattern, with small increases in the past several years after more significant declines. Drug abuse offenses have grown significant in the region since 2012; juvenile crime in both counties has improved.
• Health — The uninsured rate has dropped by more than half regionally since 2010, an even bigger drop than seen statewide. Cost of care remains a concern. Costs have grown at a pace faster than the rate of inflation. This is a complex long-term problem not unique to Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Adult tobacco smoking stands at 22 percent, higher than the statewide rate. Drug and alcohol use, nutrition, and physical activity are other areas related to health outcomes.
Diseases such as cancer and heart disease, which are often related to some of these behavioral factors, have higher age-adjusted death rates in the two counties than Pennsylvania as a whole. Mental health should be another regional priority.
After a spike in the suicide rate seen in last year’s data, there was significant improvement in both counties. Still, both counties are higher than the statewide suicide rate.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.