New Mexico trails most in work

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By Harold Morgan

New Mexicans don’t work. More precisely, fewer New Mexicans participate in the labor force, on a percentage basis, than in most states.
I don’t know why. I haven’t heard anyone ask, other than one or two labor economics nerds. The problem has to be cultural, deeply embedded in New Mexico society.
Start the consideration with Nebraska, the state closest in population to New Mexico. Nebraska’s population was 1.83 million in 2010. Ours was 2.06 million. Culturally the two states are vastly different, which is the point of the comparison. Similarities are a larger city, Omaha, and a state capitol 60 miles away, Lincoln. Omaha beat Albuquerque in the Pacific Coast League division playoffs.
During 2010, Nebraska averaged 71 percent of its population in the labor force. New Mexico scored 60 percent. With its smaller population, Nebraska offered employers 55,000 more people working or looking for work than did New Mexico.
As Buffalo Springfield observed years ago, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
In the jargon, then, New Mexico’s labor force participation rate was 60 percent. By July 2012, our rate was down to 57.9 percent. Nebraska was the nation’s leader at 71.7 percent, just ahead of oil-booming North Dakota at 70.7 percent.
Back to 2010. Two-thirds of our men (66.3 percent) are in the labor force. Only 54.1 percent of women are.
Lest anyone want to pull the race-ethnic victimization card, rates are about the same for all groups. Asians and Hispanics both have a 61.7 percent participation. Whites show 61 percent participation. For African Americans, the rate is 56 percent.
New Mexicans’ lack of interest in work has one distinctive factor: Of our fellow bottom feeders—those with labor force participation under 61 percent in 2010—the other five are in the south, “led” by West Virginia with 54.5 percent labor force participation. Around the Four Corners, we’re behind as usual. In 2010 labor force participation was 63.3 percent in Arizona, 65.8 percent in Texas, 69 percent in Utah and 69.8 percent in Colorado.
Some of this is the recession. Labor force participation dropped around the country. That excuse doesn’t apply here, though the state’s rate declined during the recession. Our labor force participation has been below the nation’s rate since about forever. Our rate was 60 percent in 1980; nationally it was 63.8 percent. The recession added to the problem with older, less educated types—male construction workers—getting dumped.
Another factor is that New Mexico has a couple of sets of people who by choice or circumstance don’t participate in the mainstream economy. They are along the border and in the northwest part of the state.
As of 2010, we had 120,470 firms without employees, as “employees” are officially defined. The 1,283 oil and gas firms without employees averaged sales of $79,888 that year, followed by the 12,029 real estate firms averaging $77,256.
A young man once talked his way into the entry-level slot on a press crew. His “talk” was the energy brought to an even lower-level job—hand inserting newspaper supplements. Barely literate, passed from grade to grade in Los Angeles, he had left a prison farm. But he worked and created his job. Because of the quality of this man, both as a human being and as an employee, the company saved his job while he completed the jail time.
Addressing the issue will take time. Obvious step one is defining the problem.
Who works? Who doesn’t? Why? What are the demographics?
Probably, the first step would be in the early elementary grades—teaching that work is good. For now, we don’t know the problem. We need to find out.