There are fewer people employed in Letcher County than the same time four years ago, or even eight years ago, state unemployment figures show.
While Gov. Matt Bevin has been touring the state talking about record low unemployment percentages, the numbers are more complicated than a simple percent because the number of people in the workforce also changes from month to month. The number in the workforce here has dropped dramatically over the past few years.
The state and federal governments’ official unemployment rate for Letcher County stood at 8.8 percent in July, the last figures available, with 5,682 employed. For the official rate in July 2015, there were 5,719 employed and the unemployment rate was much higher — 12.6 percent.
Matthew Ruther, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville, said many counties in eastern Kentucky are experiencing the same decline in the workforce.
“The unemployment rate is a fairly simple formula. It’s just the total number of people unemployed, (divided by) the total number of people employed and unemployed,” Ruther said. “There’s two parts of this ratio. The unemployment rate can go down if the top number goes down, or if the bottom number goes down.”
In July 2015, the county had a civilian labor force of 6,543. That had fallen to 6,229 by July of this year, a difference of 314. If that 314 were added back to the labor force and to the number of unemployed, today’s rate would be higher today than it was in 2015. The civilian labor force is the number of people who are employed or unemployed and actively seeking work. It does not include military personnel, federal government employees, retirees, handicapped or discouraged workers, and agricultural workers.
Looking back further, today’s numbers are even bleaker. While the unemployment rate in July 2011 was 10.3 percent — 1.5 points higher than this July — there were 9,011 people in the labor force then — nearly 2,800 more than this July. There were also more people employed.
Many of the lost jobs occurred when a downturn in the coal market caused widespread mine closures and layoffs. Of the estimated 547 people out of work in Letcher County in July, about 130 were miners employed by Blackjewel Holdings when the coal company went bankrupt July 1. Some of those have moved away, however, many still remain and would still be considered part of the workforce.
The number in the workforce might be declining partly because some workers have become discouraged and stopped looking for work, have left the area to find work, or have become disabled or died, Ruther said.
“My sense from looking around this is a significant problem in some places where the economy is not diverse,” Ruther said.
The other factor is that as baby boomers get older, the number of people aged 16-64 — working age — has also declined, but Ruther said he would not expect that large a decline in such a short time.
“I suspect it’s not going down as fast as the labor force,” he said.
According to Census bureau estimates, the population of Letcher County has declined 2,204 since the 2010 Census to 22,328. Whitesburg is estimated to have declined to 1,875 from 2,131 in 2010.