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Census figures help tell sad story of area's job growth

Misery, it seems, really does love company -- especially in upstate New York.

You can't help but draw that conclusion when you look at the employment trends across upstate. While the struggles of the Buffalo Niagara region have been well documented, the sad reality is that we're far from alone in our troubles.

Job growth upstate last year was less than one-seventh of the increase nationally. Put another way, for every two jobs that were added upstate, 15 were created across the United States.

And upstate's troubles were sadly uniform. Growth upstate was strongest last year in the Poughkeepsie metro area, but even there, job creation still was more than a third slower than the nationwide rate. In the other 10 upstate metro areas, job growth wasn't even half as strong as the 1.5 percent increase across the country, according to state Labor Department statistics.

Unfortunately, it's not a new story.Upstate's economy has been struggling for a long, long time. Over the last 15 years, for instance, the number of jobs upstate has grown by a measly 4.2 percent, less than a fifth of the 21.9 percent increase nationally.

The good news is that the recession across the upstate region is over, with jobs growing at a 0.2 percent pace last year and by 0.6 percent in 2004. But if you look at the economy as a race that pits one community or state against another, upstate is way behind, with job growth that's less than a third of the national average over the last two years.

It's an even sadder story in the Buffalo Niagara region, which is in the midst of what could be termed a double-dip recession after losing 1,700 jobs last year -- the fourth year of job losses in the last five.

The Milken Institute, a California think tank that recently ranked metro areas based on their job creation. Buffalo came in 146th out of 200, which was better than its 173rd ranking in 2004.

"It has gone up, but this is all relative, depending on how everyone else is doing," says Lorna Wallace, a Milken Institute research fellow.

Because everyone else is doing better than we are, the nation has made up for all the jobs that were lost during the recession and created 2.2 million new ones to boot. The Buffalo Niagara region, in contrast, needs to add 11,600 jobs just to get back to where we were before the downturn started. And Robert Ward, the research director at the Public Policy Institute, an Albany think tank connected with the Business Council of New York State, notes that upstate still has 112,000 fewer jobs than it did when the recession started in 2001.

That's a lot of numbers, but they tell an important story. People follow jobs, and unfortunately, the job growth numbers show that upstate New York is creating just a fraction of the opportunities that are found in the rest of the country.

So it's little wonder then that new Census figures released last week show that Erie County lost 18,622 residents, or 2 percent of its population, from July 2000 to July 2005 -- the ninth biggest drop among the nation's 100 biggest counties. Monroe County's population fell by about a third of a percent, and only 20 of the nation's biggest counties lost people.

A coalition of upstate business groups, including the Amherst Chamber of Commerce and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, is pushing to overturn anti-competitive laws and regulations to reduce taxes and business costs. That includes cutting Medicaid and workers' compensation costs, along with overturning the so-called Scaffold Law that drives up insurance premiums by making contractors liable for almost all gravity-related work site injuries.

That's not a new prescription for the upstate economy, but there's no doubt it needs some strong medicine.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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