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CITY TALK: Labor force rising, but poverty a real concern

For the most part, when I write about employment data here at City Talk, I’m detailing the estimates for payroll employment from the ongoing survey of establishments. 
 
However, the unemployment rate and other characteristics of the labor force are determined by the household survey, not the establishment survey. The household estimates can be noisy from month to month, and sometimes they are out of step with the payroll estimates. Eventually, though, the two surveys align.
 
I wrote recently about the strength of the latest payroll estimates, and last week the Georgia Department of Labor released similarly upbeat data regarding the March unemployment rate for the Savannah metro area (Chatham, Effingham and Bryan counties). 
 
The metro area unemployment rate in March fell to 5.1 percent from 5.6 percent in March 2015, but that’s not the most impressive data point.
 
In March 2015, there were about 175,000 people in the Savannah area civilian labor force, but that number leaped to more than 180,000 in March 2016. 
 
Sure, the area population is growing, but that growth is probably close to 1 percent per year. The year-over-year increase in the size of the labor force was just over 3 percent. Looked at another way, in the past year about 3,000 more people have joined the labor force than would have been suggested by population growth alone.
 
At the same time, the ranks of the unemployed fell significantly. 
 
Some of us data wonks had been expecting — or at least hoping — that the labor force participation rate would increase as the local labor market improved, and the current data suggest that is happening.
 
Of course, all this just brings us to one of the great Savannah paradoxes. Even at a time of booming job growth and increased employment opportunities, many residents are locked in cycles of inter-generational poverty.
 
The low prevailing wages in certain industries are certainly a factor here, but much of the employment boom has been in sectors that pay quite well. Too many Savannahians simply seem stuck on the sidelines, unable to take part in our robust jobs recovery.
 
Poverty was a big issue in last fall’s Savannah elections, and it seems like poverty reduction will continue to be an important issue for the current city administration. During the campaign, I wrote a detailed column about the local poverty rate, and I’ll be following those numbers closely for the next few years to see if we are making significant headway. 
 
 
Checking out the ‘kitchen swap’ at The Grey
Last Wednesday evening, a friend and I reserved two spots at the bar in the dining room of The Grey, but, for a change, we weren’t there to eat Chef Mashama Bailey’s food. 
 
The menu for the night was conceived by Ned Baldwin, the chef at Houseman in Hudson Square in New York City. 
 
This was the second half of an unusual and inspiring “kitchen swap.” A week earlier, Bailey had taken over Baldwin’s kitchen at Houseman for one night.
 
The swap attracted excellent coverage in the New York Times. 
 
In “Two Rising Chefs Enjoy a Busy Reunion at Houseman,” Jeff Gordinier, who has previously covered The Grey for the NYT, noted that Bailey and Baldwin “worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s intimate and influential restaurant, Prune, in the East Village, where the work space feels roughly the size of a ticket booth.”
 
“Both chefs have achieved independent success in their 40s,” Gordinier wrote, “and their culinary approach reflects a mature, no-frills philosophy that they couldn’t help but internalize during their time at Prune.”
 
Houseman’s menu was being served at a fixed price of $80, which felt like a bargain when we realized that we could order as many dishes as we wanted. So the two of us ended up with three starters, two middles, two vegetables, two mains and two desserts. (Including wine, but before tip, we each paid about $110.)
 
The boldness and inventiveness of Houseman’s dishes seemed a natural fit for The Grey. I was especially impressed by the radishes with goat cheese and bottarga (a kind of caviar), the lamb sausage, the roasted leeks with currants and pistachios, the signature Houseman burger and the peanut tart, which seemed a perfect wedding of peanut brittle and pie.
 
I’d love to see some other Savannah chefs work out a similar initiative with former colleagues in other cities. 
 
I’m sure that arranging this recent swap between Houseman and The Grey took some serious time, but the good press and the customers’ raves will continue to pay dividends for both establishments.
 
And the collaboration was yet another boost for Savannah’s booming restaurant scene. 
 
City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, GA 31401.

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