RALEIGH — Almost 8,000 more people were either working or looking for jobs in March, a shift from a trend that indicated people were dropping out of the labor force, the state Commerce Department reported Monday.
In the past year, only March and January showed an increase in the number of North Carolina residents working or hunting for jobs. The state’s labor force of potential or active workers shrank by nearly 50,000 since March 2013.
The report showing both the state’s employment and its workforce increasing diminishes, at least for a month, arguments that the sharply improving unemployment rate was due largely to discouraged job-seekers giving up than finding jobs that are becoming increasingly available.
A federal report released Friday said North Carolina’s jobless rate fell in March to 6.3 percent from 6.4 percent in February. North Carolina trailed only Florida as employers in 34 states increased nonfarm payrolls last month, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. The state’s March jobless rate was below the national average for the second straight month and remained the lowest it’s been in more than five years.
Gov. Pat McCrory again claimed the credit for the improving unemployment rate is due to decisions by him and fellow Republicans in the General Assembly last year. Those included cutting taxes, trimming unemployment benefits and terminating extended benefits for the long-term jobless.
“The continued progress that we have made over the last 15 months is evidence that the policy changes we made are working,” McCrory said in a statement. “While we continue to see encouraging results, the hard work is far from over, and we will use the upcoming short session to pursue even more policies that put North Carolinians back to work.”
But economists for months have cautioned that North Carolina’s falling unemployment rate could be the result of people exiting the job market, either because they are discouraged about finding work or other reasons. People who had been required to look for jobs in order to receive benefits may have given up their hunts and were no longer counted as unemployed. Republican lawmakers have argued that cutting off unemployment benefits could be forcing people off their couch and into the workplace.
“Once the benefits were cut off, if you were surviving on the benefits comfortably, now you have to go work,” Barton College economics professor John Bethune said. “Either you’re going to find a job or you’re going to continue to be unemployed” but not counted in the jobless data.
Monday’s report indicated that a little more than half of the 106,000 people leaving the jobless rolls in the year ending in March did so because they became employed, with the rest leaving the labor force, Bethune said.
“Hopefully we’re trending in the right direction. It would be nice to see with the economy picking up that the labor force would start to grow,” he said.