Employment & Productivity

Swans of Our Waters

The tundra swans that breed in the western arctic migrate thousands of miles to our west coast, gracing the skies and waters of California and scattered inland regions of Montana, Idaho and Utah. Close to two hundred of them were counted gliding on the Bear River wetlands near the Great Salt Lake last week. Other times, counts are in the thousands. The populations that breed in the eastern arctic travel to the Great Lakes and, mostly, the midAtlantic coast, some stopping over at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Park in Maryland these days, and are iconic on the Chesapeake Bay.

Our other native swan, the larger trumpeter, far more local, was brought back from the brink of extinction beginning in the early 1900s, when, after three centuries of overhunting, only a few dozen remained. Damage to muskrat and beaver populations also affected swan populations who nest on their dams and dens, and as these industrious rodents recovered, swan habitats improved as well.

There is another swan in the United States, the mute swan, introduced in the late 1800s largely as an ornament on wealthy estates. With few natural predators, and impressive survival agility, mute swan populations have grown, and in some coastal regions nesting species may have reached carrying capacity. Hudsonia, the small ecological research institute I work with, recently put together a round-up of current knowledge to help inform the ongoing debate on how to handle this charismatic, but potentially problematic, species, excerpted here.

As is often the case with introduced species, impacts of mute swans may be assumed rather than documented, raising the possibility that these birds are the subject of an ecological narrative, to borrow Robert Shiller’s well detailed economic narratives, those partial truths we repeat sometimes without much of a fact check. Sometimes those narratives are amusing, sometimes annoying, but in fact they drive policy decisions often with poor outcomes. Managing swan populations either by addling eggs or culling the birds themselves is an expensive long-term commitment, with no guarantee of success. Our conservation resources are limited.

Mute swans are accused of harassing other nesting waterbirds, depleting aquatic vegetation, attacking humans, and polluting bodies of water. Sometimes they are guilty as charged. And they aggressively defend their nests, as do our native swans who fend off many predators, including foxes. In the popular press, a mute swan defending his nest may come across as aggressive, a tundra swan, valiant.

And, like most birds, they eat a lot. Some ecologists and hunters are concerned that their habit of uprooting more than they eat could deplete submergent aquatic vegetation (SAV), the nursery grounds of fish and crustaceans, thereby reducing duck populations. And on their loafing sites, funny concept, apparently they have inadvertently trampled the nests of rare shorebirds. However, to Hudsonia’s knowledge there have been no species-specific studies of other birds’ nesting success in the presence of mute swans, and most aggression is directed toward also burgeoning year-round populations of Canada geese. Other than isolated accounts, there is “no evidence to support nesting disruption of marsh-nesting birds.”

The primary factor in the widespread declines in SAV beds, documented in coastal, estuarine and lacustrine habitats around the world, is reduced water clarity caused by inorganic sediment, nutrient additions, and eutrophication. For example, sediment that comes into the Hudson River during heavy rains persists for years and even decades, resuspended by recurrent rain storms. Exposed agricultural soils, point sources like treatment plants, and impermeable urban and residential surfaces all contribute, their effects tending to be exacerbated by the warming effects of climate change. There is evidence that animal herbivory is more damaging in areas already over-stressed by those effects.

We already have developed methods to improve water quality ready at hand, identified by the science as the driving factor in restoring and preserving SAV beds, and such projects create entry-level jobs in science and conservation work, sectors that look weak in Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections. Managing runoff would potentially be of greater value than managing mute swans on many levels.

Focusing on one introduced species, here mute swans, also detracts attention from coming up with integrated solutions that treat the many stressors, including alien species, as part of a web to be rewoven as best we can.

Photograph of mute swans in New York, P. Dunne

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Bring on the Solopreneur

Details on establishment formation from yesterday’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages show an acceleration beginning in 2020Q3, accompanied by a drop-off in the number of employees per establishment. As the graphs below show, between 2017 and 2019 average establishment growth ran at 1.7%, and from 2020Q3 onward at 3.8%, while the number of employees per establishment slipped from 14.5 to 13.2.

And a new term is born: the solopreneur.

Another take on this comes from applications for new businesses. Census statistics show they stumbled in March and April of 2020, and quickly recovered, rising from 3.5 million in 2019, to 4.4 million in 2020, and 5.4 million in 2021, a 54% increase over two years.

Venture Forward, a collaboration among GoDaddy and several universities to learn more about new business formations, estimates there are 45 million microbusinesses in the US, of which 90% have fewer than 10 employees. Many of these have been formed out of necessity, and 63% of those formed since March 2020 required less than $5,000.00 in funding.

The Kauffman Foundation reports that in 2020 the share of opportunity entrepreneurs, those who were not unemployed when they started a new business, fell from 87% in 2019 to 70% in 2020, and then rose to 81% in 2021, so that clouds the picture a bit. But small and growing businesses are drivers of employment, and it’s very good news that new businesses formed by blacks rose from 15% before March 2020, to 26% through July 2021, by women from 48% to 57%, and by those without a college degree from 36% to 44%. The share started by whites slipping from 70% to 60%.

National Bureau of Economic Research found that zip codes with higher numbers of black residents, especially with higher median incomes, were associated with higher startup rates. UC Santa Cruz’s Robert Farlie reported that between 2020Q1 and 2021Q3 black male business ownership rose by 33%, the largest by demographic, followed by a 22% increase among black female entrepreneurs.

The Harvard Business Review recently reported that 17% of black women were in the process of starting a business, compared to 10% of white women, and 15% of white men.

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Shady Jobs

Who knew that over 140 million acres of American forests grow in cities and towns, and trees occupying that 3.6% of the land in the lower 48 are responsible for close to one-fifth of the nation’s carbon capture? That popped out of recent study on projected growth of urban forests and climate change mitigation at the county level from the venerable American Forests, a not-for-profit working for better outcomes since 1875.

Linden flowers at the Illinois Institute of Technology

Yet those urban forests grow inequitably. In their introduction, American Forests’ scientists note that with a few exceptions, canopy cover in urban areas functions well as a map of urban inequality. Average canopy coverage in urban areas is about 39%. Within that, a recent study found that in formerly redlined neighborhoods canopies cover 23% of the space, whereas neighborhoods given high ratings, characterized by US-born white populations, had close to twice the canopy, 43%. In the authors’ own words, the “ranking system used by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s parallels the rank order of average percent tree canopy cover today.” Quite the factoid.

Urban forest will expand with expansion of urban areas, but American Forests projects canopy coverage to decline to 33% by 2060, losing out largely to impervious cover. At the same time acres of rural tree cover will fall to construction equipment.

Under a Chicago River bridge

American Forests calculates that to offset loss of ecological services provided by urban forests if tree loss continues at the current rate, we would need to plant 23 million trees a year, one new tree a year for every 3 acres of urban land, which could be accomplished if each urban resident planted one tree every 12 years. An unlikely scenario.

But to do the full job, which would both balance their Tree Equity Index, and ameliorate the air pollution and heat-related illnesses that concentrate in poorer neighborhoods, we would need to plant and maintain 31.4 million trees a year, which would increase average canopy coverage to 43%. (And yes, it would be more efficient to do a better job protecting canopies, but that’s unlikely too.)

Green versus fossil fuel job projections are politicized, of course, and American Forests forecasts the full reforestation project would support 228,000 jobs annually, jobs that can’t be outsourced. American Forests’ efforts are targeted to people of color, and would provide outdoor work that might allay ongoing fears of covid infection and bring people back into the labor force. Nowhere near enough, but a start, and three times the jobs currently in shale extraction, despite much larger gains theorized by industry-funded research as the so-called Shale Gale was gaining steam a decade ago. (For reference, natural gas extraction, broken out in Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages but not in the Current Employment Statistics, was 30,000 in March of 2021. Toss in a representative share of support activities, and you’re at 75,000.)

And talk about bottlenecks. As many as aware, home gardening encouraged by covid has created shortages in fruit trees, but seedling production itself has been in long decline, exacerbated by the Great Recession. American Forests suggests we need to double seedling production to meet our reforestation goals, and, since nursery and reforestation jobs tend to be in economically depressed rural areas, unlikely to grow on their own these days, there’s an offset to our rural/urban inequality here as well. And it could break up worrisome concentrations of, say, poultry processing in the rural south.

Seedlings along the Chicago River

In addition to those jobs, American Forests’ project, currently underway, would, as the trees mature, absorb 9.3 million tons of carbon, remove 57 tons of particulate pollution, and save the country $5 billion in combined air, water and climate services annually. That $5 billion alone is over half the cost.

American Forests’ tree equity tool, a targeted resource, covers 150,000 neighborhoods and 486 municipalities that constitute 70% of the US population, including socioeconomic status, population density, and current canopy cover. You can evaluate your own community as well as compare your own community to others here.

Large cities with the most to gain include Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and Portland.

Innovation Coda
Ben Christensen & Marisa Repka of Cambium Carbon, based in DC but operating nationwide, just won the JM Kaplan Fund’s innovation award. Thirty-six million trees fall in US cities each year, and their outfit, Cambium Carbon, creates a regenerative economy by salvaging those 46 million tons of wood, and using the proceeds to fund new tree planting, as well as keep usable material out of the waste stream. Might as well get with the terminology, so upcycling that wood into valuable, and scarce these days, durable goods brings local residents, many of whom face barriers to traditional employment, into the force where they learn technical skills across the tree life cycle, from tree care to carpentry.

Christensen and Repka had the idea when working with the World Resources Institute, observing that the kind of projects coming into the climate space from the financial sector, from private industry, and from the government, were all weak in terms of scalable projects. In their words, by transcending scale, their operation will bridge the “giant gap between supporting communities with the grace and specificity required to build effective local solutions…and the ability to scale those solutions into national climate initiatives.”

Their tagline? “Our wood does good.”

Purple Martins nesting along Lake Michigan

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Damage by Demographic: An Acid Test

We all know the pandemic has done more damage to employment among certain demographic groups than others. Here are some spider graphs that show the percentage declines into the worst of it, and subsequent recoveries by demographic.

We used employment/population ratios, EPOPs, a straight-forward metric that reports the share of the population that is working, and so gets around all the questions about who has dropped out of the labor force and why that freight the unemployment rate.

Please note that the EPOP of the most engaged demographic, Hispanic men, is currently above that of all men and of Black and White men before the pandemic hit, despite an initial decline exceeded only by Hispanic women (not graphed).

White men, who experienced the smallest—‘though plenty big—contraction, and White women have made the most progress toward the ratios of February 2020. Hispanic and Black women have farthest to go, which is why you sometimes hear, based on the aggregates, that woman have suffered the most.

Here’s what that looks like:

By age, the EPOP fell the hardest among teens, and the recovery is lagging badly among those without college degrees who also experienced the largest setback:

We’ve made many promises to our essential workers. These details will serve as an acid test in assessing our progress.

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In the Labor Force & in Poverty

According to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report there were 34.0 million people, or 10.5% of the population, living below the poverty level in the United States in 2019. Although these are “primarily” adults who are not in the labor force, and children, 6.3 individuals constitute the working poor, those who were in the labor force for at least 27 weeks, working or looking for work, but whose incomes remain below the poverty level. But, that population as a share of all individuals who were in the force for the requisite weeks, fell to 4.0% in 2019, the lowest in the series that goes back to 1986, from 4.5% in 2018. In 1986 the rate was 6.2%, dropped and then rose to 6.7% in 1993, fell into 2001, topped out at 7.2% in 2010, and has been steadily falling with a mini plateau in 2017-18.

Full-time employment (FT) helps a lot, with only 2.7% of those working FT among the working poor, but 9.8% of those working part-time. Women are “more likely” to be among the working poor, 4.5%, than men, 3.5%, and Blacks and Latinos are “much more likely” than Whites and Asians to be so classified. 2.3% of Asian workers earn wages below the poverty level, as do 3.5% of White workers, 7.0 of Hispanic workers, and 7.2% of Black workers. Asian men, 2.4%. have a higher rate than women, 2.3%, but rates for women are higher in all other demographics. The highest rate, 14.5%, is among black women aged 24 to 34 or in their teenaged years, followed by Black men aged 20-24, 10.7%.

Education matters, but it’s no shoo-in. About eleven percent of white workers with four years of high school yet no diploma earn poverty wages, as do 22% of Blacks, 13.9% of Hispanics, and 7.5% of Asians. Overall, only 1.4% of those with Bachelor’s degrees are among the working poor, no difference between men and women. Although white women with BAs are only 0.1pps more likely to be in poverty than men, 1.4%, 1.9% of Black women with college degrees rank among the working poor, as do 0.8% of men, the smallest share. That breakout is reversed among Asian workers, with women at 0.9%, while among Hispanic workers, women are above, 1.9%, and men a bit below, 1.6%, the average, 1.7%.
One fifth of families maintained by women with a child under 18, a demographic we and many others consider highly motivated, earn wages beneath the poverty line, more than twice the share of families maintained by men, 9%. Families with children under 18 and one person in the labor force were five times as likely to live in poverty as those without children.

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