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Muddling Through 

Jobs, work thin in no-boom, no-bust Humboldt

Unemployment is up, incomes are low, and poverty levels are high -- but local experts suggest that the recession in Humboldt could have been worse -- and maybe it isn't even that bad.

Dennis Mullins is a research analyst at the Labor Market Information Division in Eureka. "There's kind of a sense that things are bad," said Mullins. "But I always try to look at it from the glass-is-half-full point of view. Let's look at it from the data standpoint."

The latest numbers from the LMID show that Humboldt County actually has a lower unemployment rate -- 12.3 percent -- than California as a whole, with 12.7 percent. Both the county and the state have much higher unemployment rates than the entire United States, with 9.8 percent unemployed.

Those numbers can be misleading, however, says Mullins. The percentages aren't seasonally adjusted, for one thing. That means that normal fluctuations because of seasonal jobs like tourism and holiday retail aren't accounted for, which makes the figures appear higher.

HSU economics Professor Beth Wilson said that unemployment figures also don't show the people who have given up the job hunt, or weren't looking in the first place. "If people are not actively looking for work they aren't counted," said Wilson. "We may have a lot of people who aren't looking for work. They might be growing pot, for example."

Mullins said that Humboldt ranks 19th out of the 58 counties in unemployment levels. "To be in the upper third is a good place to be," he said. "Relative to other rural counties Humboldt is faring well." Colusa County, 70 miles north of Sacramento, ranks number 58 with a whopping 27.8 percent unemployment rate, more than double Humboldt's rate.

"The recession hasn't hit our area as hard as it could have," said Wilson. "I think you can attribute that to our economy being more diversified than it used to be. If our economy had been more dependant on a single industry like timber, like it was 30 years ago, we would have been hit a lot harder."

Mullins concurred. "At one time sawmill manufacturing was a quarter of the employment in Humboldt County, and accounted for about half the payroll." He said that between 1990 and 2010 wood manufacturing shrank by close to two thirds.  

Mike Powell of Orick worked for years as a millwright at the Orick Sawmill, but quit a couple years before the California Redwood Co. closed the mill, firing many of his former coworkers. He bought Gahn Welding in Arcata from his friend John Gahn and renamed it Gone Welding.

Powell leaned against his shop table and sipped tea from a glass he gripped with grimy fingers. "Lemme put it this way," he said. "If you draw a line, and that's poverty, it seems like we're living on that line." A wide grin split through his salt and pepper scruff, and quickly faded. "I will say this about the economy though. It's really hard to get a job," he said.

The Census Bureau's data from 2009 said that 19.8 percent of Humboldt's population lives below the poverty line, compared with 13.3 percent statewide and 13.2 percent nationally. Mullins said that the numbers should be looked at critically. "You look at the tyranny of small numbers. Humboldt, relative to California, and relative to the United States, has a small population. So a small number of people in poverty are going to show up as a large percentage."

People who don't work full-time, or have seasonal jobs often fall into the poverty category, as do resident students who don't work. "If you're a logger and you have a particularly wet year," said Mullins, "and the forest service won't let you in the woods, you might only get three months of work." Which in many cases means living temporarily under the poverty line.

Sarah Kirk works with special needs children at Redway Elementary School 30 hours a week. On Sundays she works eight hours at a gas station. She gets health insurance through the school district, but unlike her full-time colleagues, she has to pay a percentage of her income to qualify. Her son's basketball season is finished, so the single mom has Saturdays off again. She said that by the books, last year was her best year. "But I'm still behind on the bills, still struggling."

Powell spent Monday working on an aluminum gurney, trimming it down so that the bedridden owner could fit through the door and go outside again. He said business is good, but not especially profitable. "I mostly know how to pay the bills," he said. "I'm not that good at making money."

The Franchise Tax Board of California recently released February 2011 statistics on income in California. The report said that Humboldt's median income per person was $29,300. That's $6,600 less than California's median income of $35,900, and almost $9,000 less than the U.S. median income of $38,200. Humboldt has the 47th lowest median income out of the 58 counties.

Median income measures the middle of the pay scale, rather than the average or per capita income. Half of the population makes more money, and half makes less than the median. In Humboldt, where there are few high-paying jobs, the median income is low.

Mullins said that, again, Humboldt's small population means that the data is subject to more drastic fluctuation than it would be with a bigger population base. "The pulp mill had roughly 200 employees, probably making between $50,000 and $70,000 per year," said Mullins. When the pulp mill workers were laid off, it had a big effect on the median income of the county.

So what do all the numbers say about the local economy? "It's complicated," said Mullins. "All the variables, all the factors ... you can't just draw one conclusion." Like one quarter of Humboldt's employed, Mullins is a government employee. He's 59, not too far from retirement age. He isn't worried about his job security, but budget cuts at the state level have others looking with an apprehensive eye toward Sacramento.

Wilson at HSU said she thinks of herself as an educator, not a government worker. As a university employee, however, she's subject to the ebb and flow of the state budget. "You do wonder about those numbers," she said of Humboldt's government employees. "Money can get cut. Those jobs can get cut."

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Zach St. George

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