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July 2015 Brief: Volume 22, Number 19

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Summer Reading From the State of Iowa


by Deborah D. Thornton



Women’s magazines frequently publish “summer reading lists” of suggested books for the beach or vacation. Most consist of light or amusing fare, often by popular authors. The State of Iowa also publishes such a list, though it is neither light nor popular. However, it is important reading for informed citizens.


The Economic Trends list is produced and updated on a monthly basis by the Fiscal Services Division of the Iowa Legislative Services Agency (LSA). It consists of updated reports and supporting data on a wide range of economic indices. The link is The reports are updated on a variety of schedules, from monthly to annually, and generally include either links or data files for historical and national data for comparison. The LSA also offers an update service which will send you a summary page for each index as updates are posted.


In July updates will be available for the household employment survey, non-farm employment, farm-commodity prices, new-vehicle registrations, unemployment claims, the Department of Revenue Index, and the Philadelphia Fed State Index.[1] All will make interesting summer reading.


At the end of May the LSA released the annual labor-force participation rate, which reports on and analyzes the number of Iowans 16 and older who are working.[2] This combined with the monthly employment survey, non-farm employment report, and unemployment claims report are the front-line analysis on how our economy is faring and what we might expect in the longer run.


The recent labor-force participation rate looks good – this is the percent of people able to work and who are working, versus those who are either officially unemployed or who have stopped looking for work. It is on the uptick, a full percentage above 2013 at 67.7 percent. According to the LSA, this is “the fourth highest in the nation and is 8.2 percentage points above the current national average (59.5%).”[3] That means more Iowans want to work,
and are working, than in the vast majority of other states.


The highest nationwide rate ever was in Minnesota, in 2000 and 2001, at 73 percent. The highest Iowa rate was 71 percent in 1996, as shown in this table.


Note that even with the recent uptick, the trend remains consistently downward. Fewer of our people are working as a percent of the eligible population now than in 1994. One of the concerns noted by the LSA is that as our population continues to age, keeping the ratio at this level will be hard. On the positive side, our population over age 16 has increased by just over 250,000 people in the past 20 years. These are people who, whatever their age, can contribute to our economy.


The question is how can business owners be in a situation to hire more people and, further in addressing the LSA concerns, to entice those who are older to remain in the workforce longer? Today, someone who is 65 or 70 is not “old.” They are not “over-the-hill” and potentially have several productive work years ahead of them. Even those who may have health or family struggles may be able to work part-time or in less demanding positions.


We all know the Iowa farmer, businesswoman, or volunteer now happily contributing well into their 70s. One who comes to mind is Mrs. Joni Scotter, of Marion, Iowa, who has recently been honored (and heavily recruited) by many Republican presidential candidates for her influence, skills, enthusiasm, and volunteer commitment.[4] As an example, she made over 20,000 phone calls for her candidates during the 2010 elections.


If this is the sort of work people are putting in as volunteers, we know how much they can contribute to the economy in paid positions. The job now is for employers to convince them (just as presidential candidates must) that it’s worth the effort.


My own mother, who is 77 this year, recently bought and is actively managing a new business. Her biggest complaint? That the young people who apply and interview with her do not know how to work, what work is, and at age 20 say things such as, “I don’t clean toilets, I’m a ‘manager,’” though it is only their first or second job. Her response? “I’m the owner, I’m 77, and I clean toilets. If you won’t do the work I do, so I don’t have to, why should I hire you?” Then she sends them on their merry, and unemployed, way.


The challenge for Iowa is not that our population is older, but encouraging them to stay employed and productive. And to teach our young people that work, even scrubbing toilets, is honorable. Though it might be hard to exceed the 1994 number of 71 percent, it’s a worthwhile goal. With the knowledge and insight gained from our summer reading list, instead of romance novels, we can all help make Iowa the best place in the U.S. to live and work.


[1] “Iowa Economic Trends,” Iowa Legislative Services Agency, <> accessed on May 30, 2015.
[2] “Employment-Population Ratio,” Legislative Services Agency, <> accessed on May 29, 2015.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Adam Wollner, “Republican 2016 Hopefuls Court Iowa’s ‘Super Volunteers,’” The National Journal, April 27, 2015, <> accessed on May 31, 2015.


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