By Scott W. Harrison
Three years after the recession officially ended, Meredith Downey continues to see its effects every day.
Downey, director of Rockbridge Area Social Services, said her agency’s caseload more than doubled — to 7,757 cases — between December 2007 and last May. The office started nearly 1,800 more cases in August than in the same month in 2011.
“We have people who have ongoing cases, and they will get a temporary job,” Downey said. “And when that job runs out, they come back.”
In Lexington especially, unemployment figures remain troubling. The city’s rate for July stood at 13 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is more than three times higher than it was when the recession began in 2007.
The labor bureau’s statistics figure local unemployment on where a person lives rather than on where he or she works, so Lexington’s figures probably reflect hard times throughout the area, local officials say.
Even so, much of the nation — including Rockbridge County and Buena Vista— has seen modest improvement in the unemployment rate since the end of the recession. But Lexington’s rate has increased from 12.4 percent to 13 percent since June 2009.
Over the same time, Rockbridge County’s unemployment rate fell from 6.9 percent to 6 percent. While Buena Vista’s rate has seen an uptick in recent months, it has dropped slightly in the past three years — from 8.9 percent in June 2009 to 8.5 percent in July.
Unemployment is only part of the story for the thousands of additional people in need of social services locally, Downey said. Many of those who need assistance have jobs. But they might be working part-time instead of full-time, or simply have seen their wages shrink.
“Generally for people, their dollar is not going as far as in the past,” Downey said. “They’re just trying to find a way to survive.”
Downey’s office does not directly provide unemployment benefits. But its programs can be a source of assistance for the unemployed and underemployed. They include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly known as Food Stamps – Medicaid and other programs.
Carl Kaiser, an economics professor at Washington and Lee University, said the long-term unemployed might need to go to these other sources when their unemployment benefits run out.
Why does healthy-looking Lexington have such a high rate? After several years of this seeming anomaly, the local figure has left many searching for answers.
Lexington City Council Member Chuck Smith called the issue a “tough nut to crack.” He said the city has fewer resources than the county to immediately take on unemployment.
“Our long-term goal is to work with the county the best we can to provide more opportunities for people who are underemployed or unemployed,” Smith said.
Sammy Moore, executive director of the Lexington-Rockbridge Area Chamber of Commerce, said he has seen a number of local businesses close. The building and real estate industries especially “took a real hit” during the recession, he said. And most of those jobs have not come back.
But he says he hasn’t seen much change in the number of jobs in Lexington.
The city’s two biggest employers — Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute — have not shrunk their work forces. In fact, VMI has added faculty and administration in the past five years, a spokesman said.
Together, the two universities employ about 1,500 full-time and 470 part-time workers.
But because unemployment data track where a person lives rather than where he or she works, a Lexington resident who lost a job in Rockbridge County, Buena Vista or elsewhere appears in Lexington’s unemployment figure. It also means that someone who works in Lexington but lives in the county is not counted in city’s employment figures by the U.S. labor bureau.
The way the data are kept leaves some officials questioning the accuracy of the official local unemployment rate. But few are denying that Lexington has a problem.
“Everybody is alarmed by the numbers,” Moore said.
Meanwhile, Downey and her coworkers try to help far more people in need, but with the same number of social workers as they had before the recession.
“We’re struggling just to keep up with it.”