By: Fallon Cochlin

With inflation through the roof and talk of a potential recession on the horizon, to say that times are tough for Arizonans is an understatement. The rising cost of living, including housing, gas, and groceries, has worsened the financial anxiety that families face each day.

Some recent reports suggest that not all is bad with the economy, however. Employers surprised economists by adding 517,000 jobs in January, and average hourly wages creeped by $0.10. In January 2023, the Department of Labor reported the lowest unemployment rate since 1969, at 3.4%. For black Americans, the unemployment rate was the lowest since the record began in 1972, at 5.4%. Labor force participation increased slightly to 62.4%, a promising trend back towards the pre-pandemic 63.4%.

Economist Andrew Hunter noted optimistically that the economy “is clearly not as close to recession as we had suspected”, but also warned that January’s job growth is probably not predictive for the year ahead. These statistics do seem promising, but perhaps could be misleading; even if January’s anomalous job growth were to persist, Arizonans would still be struggling financially. Unfortunately, the health of the economy does not always – or even usually – reflect the financial health of the working people.

For example, renters and prospective homeowners are still facing a housing crisis. Rent increases up to 60% cannot be made up for by low unemployment. At the current minimum wage, it would require a 90-hour work week to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Flagstaff. Arizonans work hard, but they cannot outwork low wages. The people who can afford housing are lucky to even find it, as housing options are severely limited. One reason for this shortage is a sharp increase in short-term rentals. Case in point: Coconino County saw an over 500% increase in whole-house Airbnb rentals between 2016 and 2020.

Housing and food insecurity are also serious issues that are affecting Arizona families. According to Feeding America, almost 800,000 people in the state are facing hunger, and over a quarter of them are children. HUD estimates that approximately 13,553 individuals were homeless in Arizona in 2022, but these numbers are often underestimated due to the inherent difficulty in gathering the data. Homeless youth – particularly LGBTQIA youth – face rampant sex and labor trafficking in Arizona, and yet state programs for these young people have “disintegrated”.

Ultimately, it is understandable for economists to cautiously celebrate positive labor trends, especially as the country recovers from the economic damage caused by COVID-19. However, it is important to keep in mind that the metrics used to measure the health of the economy are not always indicative of how working Arizonans are faring. At the end of the day, low unemployment and dramatic job growth do not rescue workers facing low wages, high inflation, and a housing crisis.

Fallon Cochlin (she/her) is currently a 3L at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her areas of interest include economic inequality, racial justice, and the intersection of spirituality and science. In her personal life, Fallon is passionate about poetry, nature, and performing arts.