Benefit numbers hold relatively steady against employment and population boom

Despite North Dakota’s fast-growing population and lowest unemployment percentage in the nation 3.1 percent by late December – benefit programs in the state and in Ward County have not seen significant changes.

“Seasonally adjusted 3.1 percent, not seasonally adjusted it’s 2.8 percent,” said Michael Ziesch, manager of the Labor Market Information Center of Job Service North Dakota, in further defining the unemployment rate. The seasonally adjusted rate, which is preferred by federal agencies, takes into account daylight hours and seasonal jobs. The state prefers the non-adjusted rate because it provides a better snapshot of current conditions, Ziesch said.

The unemployment rate is not an all-time low, as it was near the end of last century. Still, “now hiring” signs seem to fill every business window as far as the eye can see, stretching from the geographic center of the Bakken formation in the far west, Williston, to the eastern edge of the state.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, North Dakota had a population of 683,932 in July 2012. In late December, 57,610 individuals from 26,884 households received Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program federal benefits administered by the North Dakota Department of Human Services, according to Arlene Dura, the director of the SNAP program.

In Ward County, with an estimated population of 64,072 from the 2011 census estimate, 3,931 individuals from 1,869 households received those benefits.

The old “food stamp” program has been replaced by Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, debit cards. Those who benefit no longer receive stamps, but a card to purchase food.

“The program is governed by federal rules and regulations,” Dura said. “Individuals and families apply in the social services office in the county where they live.”

To qualify for benefits, the social services board will look at the number of people in the household and their gross household income, she said.

“For example, if we had a family of four who had a net income of $1,921 per month or less, they would qualify for the program,” she said.

Households that earn more than the qualifying income may still be eligible for benefits after certain deductions are taken into account, such as schooling and child-care costs for families with children or medical bills for the disabled and elderly.

“In our program here in North Dakota, we mainly serve needy children, the disabled and elderly and people on fixed income,” Dura said. “About 42 percent of those households have earned income, so they’re working. The people on fixed income will tend to be disabled or seniors. We also have the single parents with low income with children.”

That means that benefits will continue despite very low unemployment because the vast majority of beneficiaries fall outside of who qualifies as being listed as unemployed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“You have to be not working and looking for work” to be considered unemployed based on the strict definitions, Ziesch says.

The recent employment boom isn’t as large a change for North Dakota as it could have been because the state was spared much of the impact of the recessions of the 1990s and of the 2000s.

“We were certainly affected but not nearly as affected as the nation as a whole,” said Ziesch. “North Dakotans tend to be more conservative,” so they also missed the major effects of the housing market crash, he said.

Ward County had its own housing problems, though, that are still ongoing, as evidenced by the 0.8 percent housing vacancy rate, which shows extreme demand.

“When you had the (Souris River) flood there, it’s a bit of a double-whammy,” Ziesch said. “It may have displaced residents but it also created a ton of jobs,” such as contracting and repair work, and hotel staff work to house displaced residents.

As for North Dakota lowering its unemployment rate further, Ziesch is unconcerned and optimistic.

“Zero (percent) is basically an impossibility,” said Ziesch, laughing. “The reason we’re at the rate we are is because in every economy there is a portion of the labor force that is seasonal like construction or processing sugar beets or potatoes. Companies lay people off with every intention of hiring them back once the season starts again.”

Another contributing factor is what is known as “frictional unemployment,” in that an employee “is shuffling between jobs because they believe there’s always a better opportunity, and they leave to pursue it,” he said.

A third reason is one that will continue to contribute to statistics as new families continue to move in: entrants to the labor force. Statistics for employment include workers aged 16 and older.

Despite rising state population, federal food benefit recipients in North Dakota declined 3.5 percent between September of 2011 and August of 2012. Dura doesn’t know what contributes to these fluctuations but does know that an individual or household in need can receive benefits at any time.

“They can apply or reapply at the county social services office,” she said. “If we have individuals or families out there who are struggling and need food, we certainly encourage them to contact their local social services office to apply for benefits. We’ve done things to make it easier for them to apply, like applying online (”

The average monthly benefit of $277 a month is a modest sum, but it might be just enough to help people get by while they pursue new opportunities in the growing state.