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A few days ago, the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote our congressional delegation urging a vote against United States military action in Syria. The letter, citing moral concerns, came from Most Reverend Michael Sheehan — the Archbishop of Santa Fe, James Wall of Gallup, and Oscar Cantu and Ricardo Ramirez, both of Santa Fe.
Work, a local topic, is worth the bishops’ attention. Work is good. Work is moral. Good things happen with work. Families prosper. Children prosper.
The recent report about New Mexico being 50th in child poverty brought much anguish. I thought the report was not interesting. This “news” is nothing new except for the detail of being 50th instead of 49th. It only reflects bigger issues, work in particular.
People in the labor force either have a job or believe it worth the effort to look for a job. All sorts of technical definitions exist, hours worked, age ranges and the like.
Nationally, the most recent peak for labor force participation came in June 2005 at 66.5 percent. After floating around 66 percent for more than three years, the rate increased to 66.4 percent and has dropped steadily since, even since the economic recovery began.
In August, labor force participation nationally was 63.2 percent, the lowest since August 1978.
For New Mexico, the figure was 58.7 percent. (State figures are for July, but close enough.) We were ahead of five states, all southern. An amazing 15 points separate us from Nebraska, the national leader at 72.8 percent.
Look around Nebraska. The population is a little smaller than New Mexico’s. The one “big” city, Omaha, has AAA baseball. The capital, Lincoln, is 60 miles away. Much of the rest of the state is vacant. Granted, Omaha is home to (gasp!) “corporations.” Mutual of Omaha insurance, Warren Buffett. New Mexico “only” had Warren’s cousin, the late George Buffett, businessman and long-time Republican state representative.
Among counties, government provides the gold standard for work. Los Alamos leads with 67.2 percent in the labor force, followed by Santa Fe with 66.6 percent. Bernalillo is next at 65.7 percent, with Curry County, home to Cannon Air Force Base, at 65.8 percent.
To be sure, all sorts of economic activity takes place in these counties in addition to national laboratories, state government and the military. But to be equally sure, even the performance of our leaders is well behind boring Nebraska. We don’t know why. The point, repeated in this column in various ways, is that getting to the detail of our economy would be useful and inexpensive.
One of my labor force theories is that we have some concentrated sets of people not participating the mainstream economy. The non-participation is the point here. McKinley County, for example, has the lowest participation, meaning the least work done in a general sense, of our larger counties. In McKinley, participation is 52.2 percent, below West Virginia, with the nation’s lowest rate of 53.4 percent. The bottom feeders are Sierra, Guadalupe, Catron and, tied at 46.8 percent, DeBaca and Socorro.
Retirement — Baby Boomers getting older — is one of the general issues affecting the labor force nationally.
Conservatives agree that welfare programs, from unemployment compensation to food stamps, provide enough to remove some of the incentive to pursue work. Nonemployee businesses, a complex matter skewing many labor force issues, are another general situation.
These national factors don’t explain us.
OK, bishops. Convene the group. Get a table at Mannie’s Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio. Or a booth at the Frontier in Albuquerque. Chat and write a letter to legislators and Gov. Susana Martinez. Say, let’s talk about work. Let’s talk about building our New Mexico society. This is a moral problem. That’s your job.