Westerly’s March 2012 not-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 11.1% (compared with RI’s 11.8%) benefits from the degree to which the town’s labor force has tracked with its number of employed residents.
From the 2000 U.S. Census to the 2010 iteration, the town lost 0.8% of its population. Nonetheless, its labor force grew 3.4%, while its employment dropped 2.8%. The number of people working decreased more significantly in Westerly than in the typical Rhode Island city or town, but the number of people looking for work did not increase as much as in other municipalities.
As the following chart shows, Westerly’s number of employed residents is very near to its twenty-two-year low. However, its labor force is now below the average for that period, so the unemployment rate (the gap between the lines) is not as high as it might have been.
Two possible reasons for this alignment of labor force with actual employment come to mind. The first is that Westerly residents are able to get by without working (or without as many people in the household working), so when they lose jobs, they are more likely simply to withdraw from the market. The second is that they are more apt to move based on lost employment than the typical Rhode Islander.
Note on the Data
The population data above comes from the U.S. Census conducted every ten years and is therefore generally considered reliable, to the extent that is used as reference for various government programs and voter districting.
The labor force and unemployment data, however, derives from the New England City and Town Areas (NECTAS) segment of the Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) of the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). A detailed summary of the methodology is not readily available, but in basic terms, it is a model based on and benchmarked to several public surveys. It can be assumed that the sample rate (i.e., the number of people actually surveyed) in each Rhode Island town is very small (averaging roughly 30 people per municipality).
The trends shown, it must be emphasized, are most appropriately seen as trends in the model that generally relate to what’s actually happening among the population but are not an immediate reflection of it. Taking action on the assumption that the exact number of employed or unemployed residents shown corresponds directly to real people in a town would vest much too much confidence in the model’s accuracy.
Be that as it may, the data has been collected and published, and taken a town at a time, it is relatively easy to digest. So, curiosity leads the Current to see it as the best available data to deepen our understanding of trends within Rhode Island. If the findings comport with readers’ sense of how the towns relate to each other, perhaps lessons regarding local and statewide policies may be drawn. If not, then the lesson will be on the limitations of data in our era of information overload.