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Wisconsin's Rebound: Less Impressive Than It Seems?


And more now on Scott Walker's tenure as governor of Wisconsin. Since he took office, unemployment in his state has fallen and growth has resumed. But critics say Wisconsin's rebound is less impressive than it might seem. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Times are good in the city of Eau Claire in the rolling hills of western Wisconsin. With an influx of businesses, such as a Federal Express facility and a software company, employers complain about a tight job market. On Barstow Street downtown, cranes dot the skyline. Mike Schatz is the city's economic development director.

MIKE SCHATZ: We're really seeing the industrial comeback downtown and has really stayed strong through the recession, so we're going to have a really strong year this year in all areas of the city.

ZARROLI: Like the country as a whole, Wisconsin has witnessed a gradual rebound in growth. The state never experienced a major housing boom, but unemployment peaked in 2009 at 9.2 percent. Walker was elected a year later and promised to create 250,000 new jobs.


SCOTT WALKER: I've said all along that 250,000 is my floor, not my ceiling. I think it's at least 250,000 jobs, and that means probably 10,000 or more new small businesses in the state of Wisconsin.

ZARROLI: But Walker has fallen well short of that goal. The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.4 percent. In Milwaukee, it's hard to find anyone who doesn't think the job market has improved. Dante Williams is a barber.

DANTE WILLIAMS: I know a lot of people who've been getting some good jobs, good promotions and a few people opening businesses and stuff like that. So right now, it's looking OK.

ZARROLI: Still, economist Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin at Madison says in historical terms, the unemployment rate isn't all that impressive.

MENZIE CHINN: It has come down, but on average, Wisconsin has a lower unemployment rate than the national average by about one percentage point. So if you look at where Wisconsin stands, it's just about where it is on average.

ZARROLI: Chinn says with its dependence on manufacturing, Wisconsin has come back more slowly from the recession than other Midwestern states, such as Minnesota. He says the Walker budget cuts probably slowed the recovery, and the bitter battles over unions and taxes created a climate of uncertainty that has been bad for business. Chinn points to a survey by the Kauffman Foundation that ranked Wisconsin dead-last in business startups.

CHINN: If you look at the sort of statistical correlations that have held up before Gov. Walker took office and then what has actually happened afterwards, I would have expected the Wisconsin economy to grow substantially faster than what it actually has.

ZARROLI: But Chinn's colleague at the University of Wisconsin, Noah Williams, says the picture is actually a lot better than that. He says job growth has been slower than other states. But he says Wisconsin didn't suffer quite such as much as other states during the recession, so there was less ground to make up. Williams says Walker actually deserves credit for the way the economy has improved.

NOAH WILLIAMS: I think in terms of setting the tone of, you know, sort of a pro-business environment with less taxes, lighter regulation, you know, those are the parts which are most closely tied to policy, and I think have been beneficial.

ZARROLI: As he begins his campaign, Walker will try to sell that idea to U.S. voters, and he's hoping to persuade them that for all the political battles of the past few years, he's leaving the Wisconsin economy in better shape than he found it. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.