Op-Ed: Camden’s Growth About More than Lower Unemployment

By JONATHAN YOUNG, August 6, 2019

Last month, the quiet release of labor and unemployment figures from the state Department of Labor sounded like fireworks over the Delaware River in Camden. After years of hard work and determination from residents and leaders in the city, Camden’s unemployment rate had reached a 30-year low, 6.6 percent in April. In May, the rate remained nearly constant at 6.8 percent.

As the Freeholder liaison to the Camden County Workforce Development Board, the Camden County One-Stop Center, a board member of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, and a previous instructor to the pre-apprenticeship program at the American Community Partnership in Camden, I’ve spent a lot of time with Camden residents who were looking for work over the years. I’ve had to watch as able-bodied and eager Camden residents sat jobless for months or years at a time because of an absolute lack of new jobs coming into the city.

Since the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 was passed and started bringing new businesses to Camden, I’ve promised these same folks that jobs were coming to the city, that soon enough those who were looking for work would be able to find it. It was not always an easy promise to make. In May 2013, the unemployment rate in Camden was over 16 percent; approximately 4,500 people who wanted to work couldn’t find it.

I had faith in the program and kept reassuring residents that brighter days were on the horizon. This most recent data release finally reaffirms that faith with objective measurements to back it up.

Crime at historic lows

Now it is true, unemployment figures only tell part of the story in Camden. Crime and education are major factors in whether we can call Camden a city reborn. Thankfully, crime is at historic lows, and a recent study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes showed students across Camden are performing better, with some even starting to outperform the state average in some schools.

Still, the unemployment figure was shocking, especially to those who aren’t in the community every day. The question was raised to me, could we back up the unemployment figure in some other way? Could we connect it to the broader trend of growth in the city that we have all observed?

In 2015, the Congressional Research Service published a paper highlighting the employment-to-population ratio (EPR) as one of the most effective ways to measure employment growth. It is an even more effective measure than the unemployment rate because it specifically measures the number of people with jobs, as opposed to the number of people who want a job but don’t have one. Unlike the unemployment rate, the EPR won’t change if people just stop looking for work. As the Pew Research Center points out, many labor economists prefer to focus on labor force members between 25 and 54 years old, because this eliminates most students and retirees, as well.

The state does not release age-specific employment data, but the American Community Survey administered by the federal Census Bureau releases estimates on these figures each year. Based on the most recent data available, 2017, Camden city had an EPR of 61.71 percent for 25- to 54-year-olds, the highest EPR for that age group since at least 2009. For every 100 adults in Camden between the ages of 25 and 54, roughly 62 had jobs. In 2013, just 54 of every 100 were working.

Closing the gap

Camden still trails the state as a whole. Using the same data, as of 2017 New Jersey had an EPR of 78.76 percent. But, while we still have work to do, the gap between Camden’s EPR and the state was smaller in 2017 than any other year this decade. Given this year’s unemployment data, I’d expect to see these trends continue when the 2018 data is released.

Another effective measurement of a healthy economy supported by a number of experts is wage growth. Fortunately, DOL releases municipal wage data each year for a number of sectors.

In 2018, the average weekly wage for a construction job in Camden was $1,291, a nearly 50 percent increase from the average in 2010 of $861. Similar growth is seen over the same span in retail (23 percent), transportation/warehousing (11 percent), and manufacturing (7 percent). Overall, average weekly wages in private-sector jobs increased by approximately 16 percent from 2010 to 2018.

This means we now have three objective measurements of Camden’s job growth and economic gains using the most recent sets of data available. This is confirmation of what I have already heard and seen from Camden residents, and an affirmation of the promises I made to them in 2013.

Camden’s renaissance starts and ends with the residents who have powered this great city to one of the greatest American comeback stories of recent history. This data shows that the efforts of city leaders and lawmakers have brought new opportunities to Camden, and residents here are reaping the benefits.