The inland counties of California are the source for much of the nation's food. It's also the area with the country's highest rates of unemployment.
Two things struck us when we looked at the latest county unemployment figures, from December 2009.
First, unemployment rates in rural America took a big jump, rising to 10% for the first time since the recession began.
Second, the inland counties of California are the hardest hit region of the country, with higher rates over a wider area than anywhere in the country.
(The county employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are compiled differently from those that the agency gives for the nation. That’s because the national figures are adjusted for seasonal changes in the data. The county figures are unadjusted and have shown a lower unemployment rate than what BLS reports for the nation.)
Since June, the unemployment rate in rural America had run at just about the same level as urban counties. Exurban counties — those not quite rural, not quite urban counties on the edge of major metro areas — had unemployment rates considerably lower than both urban and rural communities.
In December, however, rural unemployment jumped to 10%, from 9.5% in November. Urban unemployment rose from 9.4% in November to 9.6% in December.
The rate in exurban counties increased from 9.1% in November to 9.6% in December.
Below is the chart showing the unemployment rates in urban, rural and exurban counties since before the recession began in December 2007. In December of 2009, the rates for rural, urban and exurban counties all turned up sharply.[img:December09UER.jpg]
The Daily Yonder doesn’t normally check urban unemployment rates, but we did this month. And what we found was that the geographically large agricultural counties of California are the hardest hit of any communities in America.
Eighteen of the 50 urban counties — and eight of the top ten — with the highest unemployment rates in December were located in central California. The highest unemployment rate in the country isn’t Detroit, it’s El Centro in Imperial County, where agriculture accounts for 48% of all employment.
The chart below shows the 50 urban counties with the highest unemployment rates in the country in December 2009.[img:urbandec2009528.jpg]
These counties have lost agricultural jobs, for sure. Fresno County has lost 600 ag jobs since the beginning of 2009. They have also lost loads of construction employment. The Sacramento Bee reports that Fresno lost 2,200 construction jobs in ’09. But, then, Fresno has lost jobs in every industry category.
“Depending on what economist you listen to, they’re saying 2010 will see some job growth in the second or third quarter,” Steven Gutierrez, a labor market analyst for the state, told the Bee. “But we’re still agriculturally based. Just with our seasonal trends we’ll see unemployment increase through about March or April, but once agriculture gets back into the swing, we may see [the rate] go down.”
Meanwhile, the more urban counties along the coast are turning around, leading to a state divided between growing major metro areas along the Pacific and shrinking ag and construction based counties inland.
“California has become increasingly divided between coastal and inland areas,” Hans Johnson, associate director at the Public Policy Institute of California, a San Francisco think tank, told the Wall Street Journal.
For years, people have been moving inland. Now, however, prices for housing on the California coast are rising, as people are moving back into metro areas with expanding economies. Housing prices in the more rural inland counties continue to decline, according to the Journal.
(One problem in the inland counties, especially Imperial, is a continuing dispute over water rights and a three-year drought. For a recent New York Times on these issues, go here.)
The fifty rural counties with the highest unemployment rates in December 2009 show a familiar pattern. Seventeen of the top 50 rural counties are in Michigan. And there are high unemployment counties scattered across the south and southeast.
Here are the 50 rural counties with the highest unemployment rates in December 2009.[img:ruralDec09528.jpg]
Finally, here are the 50 exurban counties with the highest unemployment rates in December. In the chart, we’ve included the neighboring metro areas.[img:ExurbanDec09528.jpg]