(Andrew Doughman/Nevada News Bureau) – Turn on the TV these days and it seems as if every politician is talking about jobs and the economy.
In a state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate, it then seems sensible to ask how many jobs were created with the $2.9 billion dollars Nevada has so far received as part of the Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), otherwise known as the federal stimulus.
The bill was passed Feb. 13, 2009. Two years later, the state’s unemployment rate hovers near 15 percent.
But before we assess the effect of the stimulus on jobs in Nevada, let’s answer this question: what is a job? One simple definition comes to mind: labor for which a person is paid money.
How about 520 hours worked during one fiscal quarter? That statistic is an example of how the government actually tracks job creation through ARRA.
Charles Harvey, Nevada’s ARRA director in the Office of the Governor, said 23,833 jobs were created in Nevada due to ARRA funds between April 2009 and September 2010.
But he said the number is “meaningless” because it has no relation to the actual number of people employed through stimulus dollars.
Working 520 hours during one fiscal quarter equates to one person working about 40 hours per week.
But in order for ARRA to be credited with creating a job, those hours don’t have to be worked by just one person. Two people might work 20 hours per week or five people might work eight hours per week.
It’s unlikely, but under the tracking system 520 people could each work one hour during a fiscal quarter; ARRA would be credited for creating one job.
In the same way, jobs measured per quarter or per month might actually count the same person twice.
The Nevada Department of Transportation’s website provides a breakdown of employment created with stimulus funds. Many of their projects involve road construction or maintenance, but it’s not as simple as counting every orange vest at the work-site.
The NDOT numbers also aren’t tied to individuals.
“There may be instances where one worker performs work at two separate recovery-funded projects and is thus counted as two employees,” their website says.
The jobs figures also obscure compensation.
“You can’t tell if they are minimum wage workers or professional engineers,” said Mary Keating, an official who tracks ARRA funds for the State Controller’s office.
This makes it difficult to determine the quality as well as the quantity of jobs the stimulus dollars provided for.
A professional engineer, for example, who earned $75,000 per year through a stimulus job in Nevada probably spent money which helped the state’s economy.
But so did the thousands of people who received unemployment benefits through the stimulus.
In Nevada, $1.5 billion of the $2.9 billion in stimulus funds spent during the past two years have simply gone to keeping unemployment benefits checks in the mail.
“That money was spent in the Nevada economy,” Keating said.
People down on their luck received a check that they could cash and spend on necessities like groceries and rent. That’s money that conceivably helped keep the grocery clerk employed or helped the landlord hire the plumber to fix a tenant’s leaky faucet.
But those numbers aren’t factored into the jobs equation.
“We only measure the direct jobs,” Harvey said.
The jobs figure also includes jobs that were “saved,” like the $83 million Harvey said helped keep Nevada teachers employed.
So how many jobs did the stimulus save or create?
The answer has even eluded lawmakers like recently-retired Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who was on a taskforce to oversee stimulus funds.
The short answer is: it’s hard to say. The state has no “head count” figure – that’s real, individual people – that answers the question.
What we do know is that job creation funds were actually just a small portion of the stimulus.
“The smallest pool of money went to projects that would actually create jobs,” Harvey said.
But talk of jobs and job creation have since overshadowed everything else the stimulus set out to accomplish.
“Since the act had so many goals originally, the focus of all those other goals has dimmed,” Harvey said. “The light has shined on jobs and unemployment only.”
Perhaps with nearly 15 percent of Nevadans unemployed, it’s understandable that the focus has been on jobs.
But taken as a whole, did the stimulus actually help Nevada’s economy?
We’ll explore that question in an upcoming story, too.