COLUMBUS — Ohio’s unemployment rate dropped in May for the 10th consecutive month, upping the presidential campaign stakes in the battleground state as Ohio’s rate reached its lowest point since October 2008 while the national rate increased slightly, officials said Friday.
The increase is good news for President Barack Obama and provides fodder for the argument that his economic policies are working. The news is a challenge for presumptive GOP candidate Mitt Romney as he tries to persuade Ohio voters that things have been worse under Obama.
In the center is Republican Gov. John Kasich, who must figure out a way to trumpet Ohio’s economy while being careful not to give Obama too much credit. Analysts generally agree that the national economy has the biggest impact on the economies of individual states. But specific industries can alter that conventional wisdom, and Ohio is currently undergoing a boom in natural gas exploration that holds the promise of hundreds or thousands of new jobs.
The state Department of Job and Family Services said seasonally adjusted joblessness in Ohio decreased from 7.4 percent in April to 7.3 percent in May, and the state’s nonfarm payrolls swelled by 19,600 compared with April’s figures.
The national jobs report was bleaker as the U.S. unemployment rate increased from 8.1 percent in April to 8.2 percent in May. Only 69,000 jobs were added, the fewest in a year.
Kasich said it’s encouraging to see Ohioans returning to work but warned the state isn’t in the clear, despite getting good news in the face of national data heightening fears that the economy is sputtering.
“The best thing that can happen is for Ohio to continue pursuing the jobs-friendly policies that are tearing down barriers to job creation and for Washington to learn from our progress,” the Republican said in a statement Friday, echoing his suggestion the previous day that bipartisanship at the state level could be an example for policymakers in the nation’s capital.
The new job numbers came out a day after the economy took center stage in the presidential race, with Obama and Romney speaking on the topic in opposite corners of swing-state Ohio, each taking aim at the other’s economic approach.
Democrats have credited Obama’s administration with pushing changes that they say have helped spur economic recovery.
The head of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce said Friday he believes state policies have had more effect than federal policies in pushing Ohio’s economic environment in the right direction.
“When you plug a budget gap without raising taxes, that sends a heck of a message to the business community,” chamber President and CEO Andrew Doehrel said Friday, referencing the two-year budget Kasich signed last year.
The number of unemployed Ohio workers dropped by about 5,000, from 431,000 in April to 426,000 in May. Ohio has added more than 60,000 jobs so far this year, or more than twice the number it added in all of last year, Job and Family Services spokesman Benjamin Johnson said.
Last month, about 6,400 jobs were added in manufacturing, which has been one of the sectors helping to drive the state’s economic recovery. The state also saw gains of 4,500 jobs in professional and business services and 4,300 jobs in educational and health services.
Each of those categories has seen a significant increase in jobs over the past year. Johnson said state officials like to see job gains, even small ones, in such a variety of sectors.
“The fact that employment is increasing in most industries in Ohio is helping to drive Ohio’s unemployment rate below the national average,” he said.
Companies have added nearly 76,000 Ohio jobs since May 2011, when the state unemployment rate was 8.8 percent.
But Johnson noted there are still hundreds of thousands of Ohioans unemployed.
“This doesn’t change our overall outlook of slow recovery in the coming months,” he said.