Unemployment in rural America continued to drop in March — as the state of the rural economy is becoming more important to the presidential race.
More than half of all rural counties had unemployment rates below the national average of 8.4 percent in March, the latest month with data available for all U.S. counties.
Political analysts, however, are looking at the economies a handful of states expected to be contested in the November presidential election. They are "states in different stages of a slow economic recovery," the New York Times reported yesterday.
Swing states with high unemployment are expected to be tougher for President Obama to win — and in several notable swing states, rural unemployment is particularly high.
Rural counties — or at least some of them — are adding jobs. There were 183,000 more people working in rural America in March than in February.
Rural counties had 25 percent of the job growth in the country from February to March, even though rural counties only had 16 percent of the total jobs.
In March of this year, rural counties had an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent. Urban counties had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent. And exurban counties had an 8 percent rate. (Exurban counties are considered "metropolitan" by the U.S. Census, but they have about half or more of their populations living in rural settings.)
All of these rates are nearly one percentage point below the rates from March 2010, when the rural rate was 9.5 percent, the urban rate was 9.2 percent and the exurban rate was 9 percent.
But as you can see in the map above, the employment situation in March 2012 is a patchwork story.
Purple counties had unemployment rates that were above the U.S. average of 8.4 percent in March. Dark purple counties had rates above 10 percent.
Green counties (55 percent of more than 2000 rural counties) had unemployment rates below the national average.
The patterns are clear — and long-standing. Rural employment has long been weak on the West Coast, in the Southeast and in upper reaches of the Midwest.
Unemployment has been low down the center of the country, from the Mountain West to just west of the Mississippi River.
The chart below shows the changing employment fortunes of rural, urban and exurban counties. A gap between urban and rural unemployment rates narrowed in March to just one-tenth of a percent.
As the map above shows, the rural unemployment rate varies considerably by state. Rural California has an astounding unemployment rate of 14 percent, while North Dakota has a 3.8 percent rate.
Those differences have led several political writers to wonder if high unemployment in rural areas of battleground states could affect the outcome of the 2012 presidential race. For instance, MSNBC's national affairs writer Tom Curry wrote last week that high unemployment "will make Obama's 2008 success in wooing rural voters harder to replicate this year."
The chart below shows the unemployment rates in rural, urban and exurban counties in each state in March 2012. The states highlighted in blue are considered battleground states — that is, they aren't safely either Republican or Democratic in presidential elections. These states are where most of the presidential campaign will be fought.
There are 13 battleground states in this list. Eight of them have rural unemployment rates above the national average of 8.4 percent. Four states have rural unemployment rates above 10 percent — Arizona (11.3 percent); Nevada (11 percent); North Carolina (11 percent) and Michigan (10.4 percent).
In 10 of the 14 battleground states, the rural unemployment rate is higher than the rate in urban areas. In Arizona, for example, the rural rate is 3.3 percentage points higher in rural areas than in the cities. In North Carolina, there is a 2.2 percentage point difference.
In the crucial swing state of Florida, however, the rural unemployment rate is slightly lower than the rate in urban counties. And in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Mexico and New Hampshire the unemployment rates statewide are well below the national average.