Fact✓Check | The Kentucky Debate: Why aren’t more Kentuckians working?

Several factors play a role in that, according to state and national business groups.
Several factors play a role in that, according to state and national business groups.
Published: Oct. 25, 2023 at 5:57 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - As part of our Campaign 2023 commitment to holding the candidates accountable, WKYT is providing context surrounding several topics of discussion from The Kentucky Debate.

We have already fact-checked that the size of Kentucky’s labor force is smaller than it was pre-COVID, but that the state’s unemployment rate is also down.

In Tuesday’s debate, the candidates sparred over why more Kentuckians are not working and what could fix that.

Claim: “The very first thing we can do is universal pre-K for all four-year-olds. When they did it in Washington, D.C. it got people back into the workforce quickly. It’s the fast way. We can save our parents about $18,000. We can have every child kindergarten-ready. But we can directly impact that workforce.”

Who said it: Andy Beshear

Fact✓Check: It is true that child care is a commonly cited reason that many have not returned to the workforce. It also factors prominently on surveys conducted by business groups to determine reasons people have not gone back to work.

In a report published last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce listed the following as contributing factors to the nationwide labor shortage:

  • early retirements
  • low levels of immigration
  • lack of access to child care
  • new business starts
  • an increase in savings

In a 2021 report titled “20 Years in the Making: Kentucky’s Workforce Crisis,” the Kentucky Chamber Foundation listed the following factors as contributing to the workforce issues specifically in the commonwealth:

  • a retirement boom
  • a skills gap
  • child care
  • substance use disorder
  • health
  • incarceration and criminal backgrounds
  • slow population growth
  • transportation, infrastructure and broadband
  • government assistance programs

Data shows it is also true - as Cameron claimed - that pandemic closures and downscaling were tough on child care centers. An analysis from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment found that employment in the industry remains below pre-pandemic levels.

The situation could get worse. The Century Foundation estimates that 41,000 children in Kentucky could lose access to child care and that more than 500 child care centers in Kentucky could close now that COVID-era subsidies to child care centers are ending, a situation known as the “child care cliff.”

That could further impact the employment of even more people.

Cameron said Tuesday night that he would work alongside legislators to expand child care services.

Claim: “You need a governor who is going to lean into this issue, and that is what I’ll do as the next governor. I’ll make sure that able-bodied participants get to work. This governor will never say that because he’s beholden to the far left and he cannot speak out and say, ‘Able-bodied people, we need to get you back into our workforce.’”

Who said it: Daniel Cameron

Fact✓Check: It’s not just Kentucky; workforce participation is below pre-pandemic levels across the country, with 1.5 million fewer Americans working today compared to February 2020, according to BLS statistics.

Even before it plummeted during the pandemic, Kentucky’s workforce participation rate steadily declined since 2000.

And it has consistently trailed the national average. Right now the state’s workforce participation rate is 57%, while the national average is 62.6%.

Cameron’s economic plan says that he will “promote a culture of work in Kentucky,” but does not detail how he will get more people back to work.

The Kentucky Chamber report highlighted the following as the most important steps in raising the state’s workforce participation rate:

  • passing essential skills legislation to improve graduates’ “soft skills”
  • creating scholarship programs to encourage degrees in in-demand sectors
  • partnering to align education and workforce programming with employer needs
  • more funding to combat the opioid epidemic
  • increased funding for child care
  • enacting further criminal justice reform measures

On Tuesday night, Beshear touted the Everybody Counts program to help graduating seniors start their careers and/or continue their education and the Education First employer program to help advance the skill sets of Kentucky workers as two ongoing efforts to address the issue.