KCK job numbers tell the U.S. story

Dave Helling
Dave Helling

Joe Reardon, mayor and CEO of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., waved a pretty strong resume last week when he announced his decision to forgo a run for a third term.

The Legends-Cerner complex. Google. A solid Fairfax-General Motors plant. A midtown grocery store. Job growth.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked us 27th in the country in the percentage of new jobs created year over year, higher than any other county in the region,” he boasted.

He’s right. Wyco jobs grew 3.6 percent from the second quarter of 2011 to the second quarter of 2012, better than Johnson, Jackson or Clay county and better than almost 300 other counties around the country.

But the mayor forgot to add this: Wages in Wyandotte County actually dropped 1.4 percent during that same period, by far the worst performance in the region and one of the worst in the nation.

How can that be? Wages are supposed to go up when the demand for workers grows.

One explanation: Wyandotte County unemployment was so high last year (around 10 percent), companies could be picky about new hires, keeping wages low.

The numbers may also tell us something important and sobering about the national economy. It’s likely most of those new jobs were entry-level, service-industry positions that replaced higher-paying jobs lost in the recession.

That pattern, economists tell us, is repeating itself everywhere — high-quality jobs continue to disappear, replaced with high-turnover, low- and medium-skill occupations. We’re better than ever at selling things to each other, but not so good at making things.

That, in turn, has led to stagnant pay for most of the middle class, leaving purchasing power stuck for decades.

In a normal economy, that would lead to lower prices, but ours is not a normal economy. While price increases for a few things have slowed, inflation is still a daily.

Is it any wonder voters are cranky?

We can argue over the causes for all of this — low-wage competition from overseas, a decline of unions, retiring baby boomers, too-high corporate taxes — but the deeper impact of our changing economy becomes more clear each year: strained family budgets, broken governments, high taxes, huge debts. Those Wyandotte County numbers don’t lie.

So the job for the UG’s next mayor will be to grow paychecks as well as jobs. And if our national government can stop foolishly arguing over trillion-dollar platinum coins long enough, perhaps they could spend some time on the issue too.