"Slackers?" In Truth, Few Jobs Exist for the Jobless
January 13, 2011

Governor Rick Scott’s economic development transition team and some legislators have complained recently that Florida’s unemployed workers don’t look hard enough to find a job.  The transition team cited a study that was misused, its author said.  Now two new reports indicate just how difficult it is for the unemployed to find a new job.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Labor reported, there were 4.6 jobless workers for every job available in November.  That’s three times more competitors for each job opening than there were in early 2007, when Florida employment began a long slide that resulted in more than one million jobless.

Nevertheless, legislators worried this week about jobless Floridians milking the unemployment insurance (UI) system.  (See “Florida senators target couch potatoes inflating state unemployment rate,” January 11, St. Petersburg Times.)

One state senator asked the state agency overseeing unemployment compensation to "distinguish between those who can't get off the couch ... and those who won't get off the couch" to hunt for jobs.  Another senator wanted to make sure the state eliminated “slackers and malingerers” who enjoy a “lifestyle” of receiving unemployment benefits without trying to work.

But the difficulty of job-seeking was illustrated in a report by Forbes.com that lists three Florida cities – Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miami – as among the 10 worst job markets in the nation.  The list was created using unemployment rates, JuJu.com’s monthly Job Search Difficulty Index for Major Cities, and analysis by Moody's Economy.com.

It’s not as if Florida’s unemployed are living it up.  The maximum weekly benefit for an unemployed worker is $275 a week, lower than all but three states.  Less than half of the unemployed even qualify for benefits because of Florida’s antiquated UI system. 

Furthermore, Florida’s UI system is among the cheapest in the nation for employers.  Only the first $7,000 of a worker’s salary is taxable to the employer – lowest in the nation.  Even after unemployment tax increases this year to strengthen the unemployment insurance trust fund, the maximum tax on Florida employers per worker ($378 annually) will be among the lowest of the 51 states and District of Columbia.

Even so, the new administration and some legislators want to “reform” the system as part of efforts to make Florida the most business-friendly state in the nation.

The American UI system was created in 1935 as a response to the Great Depression, when millions of jobless workers and their families suffered.  Without wages, they couldn’t buy goods and services, leading to more layoffs and a collapse in economic activity.

The system remains vital today not only to the more than one million Floridians and their families who receive payments, but also to thousands of businesses where the unemployed spend their benefits on products and services. 

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Lower Budget Gap Due in Part to Previous Program Cuts
September 15, 2010

Floridians can rightly cheer the news that the anticipated budget gap facing the new governor and legislature next year will be only $2.5 billion, instead of the $5.5 billion state economists had predicted earlier.  It means, in part, that the state’s economy is recovering enough that revenues from the sales tax and other taxes are growing more than expected.

But the good news masks the fact that the improved outlook also depends partly on $1.5 billion in cuts made by the 2010 legislature – and that more budget cuts will be on the agenda for 2011.

This means that the next budget will be built on an already-reduced base.  Those 2010 reductions will become permanent unless the legislature adds back the cut money in future years.  

Sometimes budget cuts might conceivably be characterized as “efficiencies.”  But after several years of cuts during the economic downturn, even the projected new speaker of the House of Representatives warns that there’s not a “waste, fraud, and abuse” line item that can be wiped out to balance the budget.

State economists provide a list of 26 Critical Needs that the next budget should fund and 29 Other High Priority Needs that the state normally pays for.  “Critical Needs can be thought of as the absolute minimum the state must do absent significant law or structural changes, and Other High Priority Needs in combination with the Critical Needs form a highly conservative continuation budget,” state economists wrote.

The list (see it here on Page 67) includes replacing federal stimulus funds for public schools, keeping up with Medicaid growth, paying for health insurance for uninsured children, providing services to Floridians with disabilities and those served in programs of the Department of Children and Families, and paying for new students enrolled in state colleges and universities.

These needs are among those that bear watching in the 2011 legislative session.  The options for closing a budget gap of $2.5 billion are limited:  modernizing Florida's tax structure by asking everyone to pay their fair share (which many political leaders say will not be considered); imposing fee increases on those already paying; or more cuts to services, perhaps to some on the list.


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Even DOE's Testing Experts Cast Doubts on...Tests
September 1, 2010

Florida’s award of $700 million over four years in the federal Race to the Top education reform competition puts the state directly on a path to link teacher pay to student test scores.  The move toward so-called merit pay is occurring throughout the nation, leaving controversy in its wake.

Some form of merit pay is part of Florida’s future and teacher unions are recognizing that reality.  (See Florida’s Latest Strategy for Improving Schools Promises More of the Same – and Uncertain Results and Merit Pay for Teachers:  Take Time to Do It Right).  But education researchers and some strong reform advocates caution that the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers should be approached carefully.

Test scores alone can be unreliable indicators of a teacher’s ability, they say.

Support for this argument comes from an unexpected source.  Even the testing auditors used by the Florida Department of Education to bless disputed FCAT scores downplayed test-score reliability in explaining questionable data in early August.

“…[T]est scores, whether they are scores for students, scores for schools, or scores for districts, are not perfect….School reform and improved instruction are difficult. Sometimes the progress is simply too hard to detect with current statewide assessments,” one of the auditors said.

The other auditor listed other limitations often cited by teachers and others who complain that schools have become testing factories.

“…[A]t the school level, the set of students tested in any particular year can play a significant role in the results – there truly is a “good class, bad class” issue that needs to be taken into account when evaluating school results….

"Individual student scores have a large amount of random variation in them.  This is true not only for FCAT, but any standardized achievement test will have limitations on interpretation based on the limited sample of student achievement on which these tests are based.”

Whether merit pay plans are devised with recognition of their limitations as well as their potential benefits will be crucial in reaching Florida's education goals.

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