If you think what is happening to the Fort Smith regional economy is a bunch of baloney, you’re more right than you might think.
The Fort Smith metro unemployment rate has remained above 7% since January 2009, with the rate above 8% between December 2010 and March 2012. The number of unemployed per month averaged 11,413 during 2011, up more than 65% from the 2008 average of 6,884.
Most of the job losses have come from the regional manufacturing sector. Employment declines at Whirlpool, Rheem, Trane and other once large employers in the area have pushed manufacturing employment to an estimated 20,000 in July, down almost 31% compared to July 2002, and down more than 38% compared to a sector high of 32,300 first reached in June 1999.
With that economic history, it comes as no surprise that the August Baloney Sandwich Index rose to a high of 201.9. The index is managed by Ken Kupchick, and factors in data back to September 2003.
Kupchick, director of marketing and development for the River Valley Regional Food Bank, uses three numbers to compute the BSI: the number of sack lunches served by the St. John’s Episcopal Church sack lunch program, the Sebastian County jobless rate and the Fort Smith metro jobless rate.
The sack lunch program served 5,957 lunches in August, a record number for any previous month.
According to Kupchick, the index has a 70% correlation with Sebastian County unemployment numbers and a 68% correlation rate with the metro unemployment rate. Therefore, the high index suggests higher August jobless rates for the region.
July’s jobless rate in the Fort Smith region was 8.5%, almost a full percentage point above 7.7% in June, but below the 8.8% during July 2011, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The July report ended three consecutive months of the metro jobless rate being below 8%.
“The program has served over 41,000 meals to date in 2012, that's 10,000 more than during the same time period of the prior year and represents a jump of 32%,” Kupchick noted in his report.
The BSI info also noted that the sack lunch program is seeing an increasing number of children during the summer months. Close to one in five lunches are served to children in the summer, and a total of 669 lunches were served to children in August, down from 822 in July.
“I'm uncertain whether the ongoing economic status of our area or the PR the Sack Lunch Program is attributing to the rise in our lunches served. Certainly more people know where we are and what we provide,” said Jean Kolljeski, director of the sack lunch program. “The one thing I am certain of is that the need is there. People simply don't have enough money to feed their families.”
Kupchick also provided the following data in the August BSI report.
• Two in five served by the Sack Lunch Program (37%) are unemployed.
• The remainder being people living with disabilities (17%), the homeless (7%), retired seniors (5%) and part-time, minimum wage or underemployed workers needing food assistance (12%).
• Only 37% of those classifying themselves as unemployed state they have been unemployed for less than a year.
• Four out of 10 unemployed people (42%) have been unemployed for greater than one year, but less than three.
• A total of 22% have been unemployed for more than 3 years.