The recent firestorm over Senator Barack Obama's comments about
Pennsylvania's "bitter" voters has focused on charges of
condescension and on the perceived denigration of gun ownership and
religion. The Senator's attitudes and tone are certainly fair game
in an election year, but the more interesting issue is his facts:
Are Pennsylvanians in fact "bitter?" Are there communities that
have stagnated for "25 years?" Are there no jobs? Is there no
The Census Bureau's Quarterly Workforce Indicators (QWI) tell a
different story. The QWI are a dataset that allows
government officials, researchers, and anyone interested in
facts-for example, journalists or campaign staffs-to look at jobs
and income data on a county-by-county basis.
How are Pennsylvanians doing? The picture is surprisingly good.
Total employment rose from 5,486,213 in 2005 to 5,566,049 in 2006,
the latest year for which full data are available. Average monthly
earnings rose too, from $3,359 in 2005 to $3,509 in 2006. Growth in
jobs and incomes was widespread across the state. Forty of
Pennsylvania's 67 counties showed gains in both categories, and 21
of the others showed gains in incomes but not in the number of
Over a longer period, the data are even more compelling and more
positive. The QWI don't cover Senator Obama's 25-year time span,
but they do cover a full decade.
- Total employment in Pennsylvania rose 7 percent from 1997 to
- Average monthly earnings rose over 31 percent, from $2,672 to
- At the beginning of the decade, the Pennsylvania unemployment
rate was 4.7 percent; it dropped to 4.4 percent by the end of
- Only 11 counties showed a decrease in jobs; and the
hardest-hit, Northumberland County, lost only 2,186 jobs, almost
exactly mirroring a drop in population in the county between the
1990 and 2000 censuses.
- No county in Pennsylvania suffered a loss in average salary
between 1997 and 2006.
The picture painted by the data is far less bleak than the
candidates would have us believe. Indeed, the data show widespread,
steady progress and rising standards of living. You would never
know that from the debate. Perhaps it's not the picture that a
candidate focused on "change" needs to show.
Individual voters don't need a picture to know how they are
doing. The vast majority are living the good life. They know they
have more and better cars and bigger TVs than their parents. They
have cell phones and computers, better health care, and access to
high-quality fresh food year-round.
They have better jobs too. Not many parents aspire for their
children to hold the same factory jobs that lifted them up the
economic ladder after World War II. Have we forgotten that life in
mill towns was often "singin' the blues"? Perhaps the candidates
are too young to remember that one of the most popular songs of the
'50s was a lament: "You load 16 tons, and what do ya' get, another
day older and deeper in debt."
We've come a long way, and the middle class in Pennsylvania
knows it. Middle-class parents want their kids to go to college and
work in an office or a profession. This is the American dream and
the American middle-class experience of the past 50 years. Though
politicians and the media would like to tell us otherwise, life in
the middle class has never been better.
Of course, it's not enough for Americans to know how well they
are doing individually. It's important that they know how well
their neighbors are doing too. Americans are a generous, caring
people who want everyone to share in society's bounty. A falsely
negative picture may lead them to opt for change when the best
thing for themselves and their neighbors alike is to stay on
This is the challenge of this election year. Economic growth
rates are not as rosy as they have been, and the negative headlines
are coming fast and furious. Candidates, in this year or any other,
will say almost anything to get elected. Thoughtful voters will
listen, but they will also look carefully at their own situations
and those of their friends. Are voters in Pennsylvania bitter? I
doubt it. Their votes will tell us one way or the other.
Miller is Director of the Center for International Trade and
Economics at The Heritage Foundation.
U.S. Census Bureau data. The population in Northumberland County
declined from 96,771 as measured in the 1990 Census to 94,556 in
the 2000 Census. According to the Census Bureau, the decline in
population has continued, with the county population at 91,003 in
2007. See U.S. Census Bureau Web site, at http://tinyurl.com/45y4hy.