Workforce issues remain one of the primary challenges facing NH employers. The state’s unemployment rate has remained below three percent for the last two years, and the number of people unemployed in December 2017 was less than half that of the previous five years. While there are many factors contributing to the state’s workforce challenge, there are public policy changes that would help.
Bridge the Opportunity Gap
It’s easy to point to NH’s median household income, which is relatively high at $70,936, and assume things are going well for everyone. Yet, this does not reflect the number of households living well below that level.
Although NH’s poverty rate was the lowest in the nation at 7.3 percent in 2016, this too fails to capture the experiences of those living above this threshold but challenged by the cost of housing, transportation and basic essentials of daily life.
The poverty rate for children was 7.9 percent in 2016. Nearly one in 10 children under age five live below poverty level. Despite declining school enrollments, the number of school children eligible for free and reduced lunch—a measure of household income—remains elevated.
As the state works to increase levels of educational attainment to strengthen the future workforce, policymakers should look for ways to ensure that all NH children have access to the supports they need to succeed. Public policy can play an important role in responding to challenges related to hunger, housing and access to health care, all of which affect a student’s ability to achieve economic security and be more productive as an adult. Policymakers should also be mindful of the limited access to opportunities in some of the state’s economically disadvantaged areas and look to bridge the gap.
Boost Wages for Health Workers
Much of NH’s job growth since 2008 has occurred in the health care and social assistance and hospitality sectors. While these jobs are vital to our state’s economy, many of these positions offer lower wages, and average weekly wages were below the state’s average private sector wages in 2016.
Health care service employers are particularly challenged to fill staff positions at nursing homes, mental health centers, treatment centers, home health care services, and other direct services. These staffing shortages have a negative impact on patients who are unable to access the care they need and on family members who endeavor to fill the gap, which creates additional strain on the broader economy as individuals may exit the workforce to care for family members.
New Hampshire’s low Medicaid reimbursement rates contribute to this challenge. When they are unable to pay competitive wages, health care providers have difficulty attracting and retaining the workers necessary to meet current needs. New Hampshire’s shifting demographics and rapidly aging population will increase the demand for these health services in coming years. Policy changes in this area would help to ease the strain and assist in attracting the workforce required to adequately care for patient needs.
Expand Access to Health Care
The ongoing opioid crisis remains one of the most critical issues facing NH. The state’s expanded Medicaid program is playing an important role in increasing access to treatment, providing substance use disorder services as well as mental and behavioral health services to many low-income residents who have not previously been able to access these services. As a return on investment, for every $6 the state contributes in 2018, the federal government contributes $94. The program brought more than $400 million in federal dollars into the state economy in each of the last two state fiscal years.
While policymakers look to maximize resources to address current needs, they should also be investing in prevention and support programs to help avoid such epidemics in future years. The state’s Alcohol Abuse Prevention and Treatment Fund, which is funded through profits from the state’s Liquor Commission sales, is one dedicated funding stream currently available to support alcohol and drug prevention, treatment and recovery programs.
We still have much ground to recover from the post-recession budget cuts, which reduced access to many such programs at a time of high anxiety and when they were most needed by residents. Policymakers should look for opportunities to increase access to health and prevention programs that will support residents of all ages and put them on a path to future success.
AnnMarie French is interim executive director of the NH Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization based in Concord. Learn more at www.nhfpi.org.