'Jobless recovery' a little brighter in Columbus area

It's still way too high. There are still way too many people out of work, even here, where we're doing so much better than so much of the country. Numbers, and fractions of numbers, have little meaning and even less comfort for our friends and neighbors who are still out of work but still have bills to pay and mouths to feed.

But the news that the Columbus unemployment rate continues to fall -- slowly, but steadily -- is an encouraging economic indicator after a prolonged recession that hit Georgia especially hard.

The preliminary February figure from the Georgia Department of Labor was 8.9 percent, slightly down from January's 9 percent and significantly down from the 9.7 percent of a year ago. Fewer layoffs in construction, manufacturing and other areas contributed to the trend.

In that context, Wednesday's announcement that NCR plans an expansion at the former Cessna plant in Muscogee Technical Park comes as timely and welcome news. Even more to the point, it means about 100 new jobs to add to the 500 already working at the company's ATM plant. And NCR says the ultimate goal is 870 employees in Columbus.

Combined with the expansions up the road at Kia in West Point and other signs of economic life, some of the metro area's unemployed might at least have hope, and those who have gotten on the payrolls have reason for joy and relief.

The rising employment tide doesn't seem to be a brief ripple: This is the seventh consecutive month that the state's jobless rate has fallen, to its lowest point in three years. The state added 15,600 jobs last month, and welcome developments like Caterpillar's announcement of a new plant at Athens can only help that trend.

Improvement is still agonizingly slow, and there are still trouble spots. The state unemployment rate of 9.1 percent is still well above the national average of 8.3; so for that matter is the Columbus jobless rate. More than 8 percent of Americans out of work equates to millions of people who need jobs. Closer to home, there is still double-digit unemployment in Troup, Meriwether, Chattahoochee, Taylor and Stewart counties; Talbot was just under the line at 9.8 percent. As might have been expected, in the long-depressed areas of southwest Georgia, the slow recovery is even slower.

Even among people with jobs, times are still tough. There are overdue raises that won't be coming any time soon, and stagnant wages and salaries that haven't kept up with even modest inflation rates. And of course, when fuel costs are high, just getting to work is harder to afford.

Nobody pretends renewed prosperity is as close as we'd like to believe. But the signs suggest it's not as remote as we might have feared.