Once again, Oregon sadly finds itself with some of the nation's most horrific numbers in unemployment. And, once again, we hear Oregon politicians and others talk about how to put people back to work, but at the same time demonstrate too little strategic economic thinking.

On Monday, state economists released unemployment numbers showing Oregon's jobless rate had grown to a 26-year high. As of March, 12.1 percent of Oregon's workers were unemployed - a number that hasn't been seen since the waning days of the brutal recession of the early 1980s.

Back then, Oregon, still highly reliant on a timber economy, was among the worst of the worse for joblessness.

Now, here we are again. The 12.1 percent figure gives Oregon the painful distinction of having one of the highest jobless rates in the nation - despite the fact that officials from the governor on down have claimed to make economic progress job No. 1.

Their scattershot efforts have provided only limited immediate benefits. And they still haven't led Oregon in a strategic way to help the private marketplace create an economy that can better weather the downturns. What can the state do? Consistently invest in better schools, colleges, universities, transportation and infrastructure. The government can partner with the private sector to create and invest in a long-term business plan for a diverse and resilient Oregon economy.

For Oregon to improve, it must address underlying issues that push it to the top of the unemployment rolls. Factors that contribute to an extraordinarily high jobless rate include education and income levels. Oregon, particularly outside the metro area, has lower levels of educational attainment and also lower-than-average incomes than the nation as a whole.

Because education and income are tied to the ability to find and keep a job, Oregonians suffer disproportionately during economic downturns.

Beyond education, Oregon's fortunes also are linked to economic sectors that have been hit particularly hard in this recession, including manufacturing, wood products and construction.

Behind the numbers: real pain

Measuring and understanding Oregon's unemployment rate isn't a mere statistical exercise. Unemployment's effects on individuals, families and communities are real, personal and significant.

Consider how much better off this state's citizens would be if Oregon's unemployment rate was at the national average of 8.5 percent. That 3.6 percentage point difference represents nearly 72,000 more Oregonians who would be employed today.

Yet with fewer people employed, state government - which relies on the one-legged stool of income taxes for most of its revenue - is bracing for devastating budget reductions that will spread throughout every Oregon community. It means hundreds, possibly thousands, of teaching positions in the metro area's public schools are on the chopping block.

That in turn will mean fewer opportunities for students, less educational attainment and more unemployment in the future.

Oregon can only take limited steps to improve employment in this recession, but its leaders must make sure that the state fares better in years to come. That requires creating and investing in a unified economic strategy that includes public schools, community colleges, universities, transportation, land use, water and environmental policy and housing.

The choice is clear: Oregon's state and local leaders either can respond to the lessons of this downturn with better long-term thinking, or the state can continue its unstable economic drift from recession to recession - posting record unemployment numbers along the way.

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