Following a surge in confirmed cases of COVID-19, Ventura County last week was pushed back into the state’s most restrictive “purple tier.” Given the county’s poor economic performance before and during the coronavirus pandemic, we shudder at the prospect of a second government-mandated shutdown of the region’s economy.Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Ventura County was experiencing a prolonged period of economic weakness. Beginning in 2013, the size of the county’s labor force contracted in each of seven consecutive years. The county’s economic growth slowed dramatically over the same period, from a post-Great Recession high of 4.8 percent in 2013 to less than 1 percent last year.
The most arresting sign of weakness is county population data. According to the California Department of Finance, in 2016 Ventura County’s population declined for the first time in the history for which we have data. The county’s population declined again and at a greater rate in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, population losses were spread across seven cities in the county.Pre-COVID jobs data also paint a picture of general weakness. From the Great Recession to the start of the pandemic, the highest paying sectors experienced sustained declines. Jobs in manufacturing, information technology and financial activities declined by 12.3, 17.5 and 26 percent, respectively.
The pre-COVID-19 peak of economic activity was February, when there were 337,400 jobs across all industries. Government mandated shutdowns caused an unprecedented contraction. By May, Ventura County’s job market had lost over 40,000 jobs, a loss of more than 12 percent. At the same time, the county’s Labor Force contracted by more than 19,000. The unemployment rate, which only counts those actively working or seeking work, has become disconnected from labor market health. We estimate that Ventura County’s true unemployment rate peaked at more than 20 percent, well above May’s headline 13.5 percent figure.The impacts of the pandemic are not evenly distributed. Ventura County jobs in retail, leisure and hospitality and personal services, together the lowest paying sectors with an average salary of just $30,600, dropped by a collective 27.6 percent. More than 1 of every 4 jobs in these sectors were destroyed in only three months. Jobs in these sectors grew since May but are still down nearly 15 percent from the pre-pandemic level.Meanwhile, high paying jobs are much more likely to support remote working arrangements. As such, jobs in the highest paying sectors, including information and technology, financial activities and management services (average salary of $109,300) declined by only 7.4. They have subsequently increased and are only 3.8 percent below the pre-pandemic level.
To a shocking degree, the impacts of the pandemic are being felt disproportionately among economically vulnerable members of our community.Thus far, Ventura County’s jobs recovery has proceeded relatively more quickly, if only slightly, than either neighboring Los Angeles County or the state. We attribute this in part to bold action by Ventura County policy makers who moved to open the county’s economy as quickly and safely as possible. Given the strictures imposed by the state, county officials are to be commended.
The swift and decisive shutdown in March undoubtedly slowed the disease, buying our communities critical time. This action surely saved the lives of physically vulnerable people. But the disproportionate effects of government ordered shutdowns on economically vulnerable members of our community necessitate a different approach today. The region’s economy simply cannot afford another shutdown. Avoiding one, while protecting the most physically vulnerable among us, is a critically important task.
Given pre-pandemic weakness, we believe that Ventura County faces a slow and prolonged recovery. Another broad shutdown would diminish an already bleak outlook. Given how much more is known about the novel coronavirus and how courageously county officials have acted thus far, we hope that another shutdown can be avoided. We also find confidence in the recent scientific research. Even without a vaccine, research by the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago indicates that “targeted closures can achieve the same (health) policy goals at substantially lower economic losses.” We cheer the Great Barrington Declaration and its advocacy by thousands of public health scientists for a policy of “focused protection” rather than complete lockdown.We believe that these and related research point a way forward for Ventura County.
County officials need to use every tool available to avoid another broad shutdown. And community members must do their part to protect physically and economically vulnerable people. This means following local regulations, practicing social distancing, and providing political support for policy makers, so that they can continue to do the right, if difficult and sometimes scary, thing to keep the economy open.Matthew Fienup, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.