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Left behind

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Arkansas is getting a lot of attention for our very low unemployment rate. If you look only at that number (3.4 percent), you would think workers here were doing quite well — better than surrounding states and even the nation as a whole. But that seemingly simple rate can hide some huge gaps in prosperity.

It's a broad measure, so you have to break that number down to get an accurate picture of how we're really doing. If you look more closely, you'll see that some appear to be living in an alternate Arkansas that is indeed thriving. Many aren't.

The best predictors of which Arkansas you live in have to do with your age, education and race.

A low unemployment rate should lead to higher wages, a better job market and general economic success. But a lot of people in Arkansas are watching the unemployment rate fall while reaping few of those benefits. Our poverty rate has been relatively stagnant. About one in five Arkansans still lives in poverty. The poverty rate for children actually ticked up 1 percent from 2014 to 2015, to 27 percent, according to the most recent data. Even though wages are going up overall for Arkansans, we still lag behind national median wages and most other states in our region.

In general, those who fared well during the recession are doing even better now, and those who struggled the most are barely getting back to where they started.

Young workers in Arkansas had a very hard time finding work during the recession. Workers at the beginning of their career face more volatility during economic dips, acting almost as a buffer to older workers, whose employment rates are steadier. Their unemployment rates spiked up to 19 percent, almost four times the rate of older workers at the time. Now, their unemployment is lower (8.8 percent), but still not good. Remarkably, young workers' unemployment is still higher than the peak overall rate that Arkansas hit in the depth of the recession.

Arkansans without a high school diploma are in a similar spot, with unemployment in their group at 7.1 percent. That's more than triple the rate for those with a bachelor's degree or higher, and again similar to recession-era statewide unemployment rates. The 13 percent of young people who don't graduate high school are essentially entering a job market in permanent recession.

African Americans also work in a seemingly alternate Arkansas economy, with an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent. While unemployment rates are going down across the board, there is still an unemployment gap for African Americans. The ratio between white and black unemployment rates in Arkansas is actually higher now than it was in 2010, even though employment overall has greatly improved. Similarly, the national wage gap between white and black workers is wider now than it was in 2000.

We know it is possible to be successful in Arkansas, because so many kids do grow up healthy and able to fulfill their ambitions. Smart policies can help our state to finally realize the untapped potential of so many Arkansans who have been left behind. Nutrition programs (like Community Eligibility and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) help kids go to school ready to learn and keep up with their peers instead of thinking about their next meal. Investments in quality pre-K have longstanding educational benefits for kids, and set them up for a lifetime of learning. Tax policies like a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit will help balance our tax system that is too hard on low-income families. These are just a few examples of how we can create an economically vibrant state for everyone, because finding a rewarding career in Arkansas shouldn't be left up to chance.

Eleanor Wheeler is a senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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