The Unemployment Divide

Unemployment ticked up in January in rural counties, a consequence of layoffs after the Christmas season. The divide between job-rich and jobless rural counties remains stark.

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Unemployment rates ticked up in rural counties in January, according to new figures released from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is an annual pattern, as seasonal employees from the Christmas sales period are laid off and the ranks of the unemployed swell. In January, unemployment in rural counties averaged 9.1 percent, up from 8.4 percent in December 2011.

Unemployment in exurban counties rose from 7.9 percent in December to 8.6 percent in January 2012. The national average unemployment in January, according to the BLS, was 8.8 percent.

Comparing January rates across the years, however, shows that rural unemployment has been trending slowly downward, dropping one percentage point each year since 2010. The rural unemployment rate was 11.2 percent in January 2010 and 10.2 percent in January 2011.

The most striking aspect of rural America’s employment situation, however, isn’t the national number but the stark divide between rural areas with high and low unemployment.

The map above shows the unemployment rates in all rural and exurban counties. (Exurban counties are within metropolitan regions, but have about half their residents living in rural settings.) 

Purple counties have unemployment rates below the national average. Green counties have rates above the national average. (Click on the map to see a much larger version.)

Down the middle of the country, unemployment is consistently below the national average. On the coasts and in the Southeast, the rates are above the national average.

Each month the Yonder normally lists the 50 rural and exurban counties with the lowest unemployment rate. We won’t do that this month because the list is filled with counties from the Dakotas and Nebraska — just as it has been for several years. 

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There are other pockets of high employment in rural America. New Hampshire and Vermont are doing well, as is a good portion of rural Virginia. But, basically, the unemployment map of rural America looks like a barber pole, with stripes of high unemployment along the coasts and into the Midwest and low unemployment running down the center of the country.

The mismatch of people and jobs has some bizarre consequences. The South Dakota legislature passed a bill authorizing the state to hire a recruitment agency to help bring 1,000 out-of-state workers to fill jobs in the state. (The Yonder has carried stories from Columbus, Nebraska, which is dealing with the same issue.) 

The state will hire ManpowerGroup, which will receive $3,000 for each worker it places with a base salary less than $40,000 a year. It will receive $5,100 for each employee it places at a job that pays between $40,000 and $80,000. 

“This is extremely unique. I don’t think it’s ever been done,” said Robert Meyer of ManpowerGroup. “It’s almost opposite what’s going on in the rest of the United States. They have the people but not the jobs. We have the jobs but not the people.”

In North Dakota, the problem isn’t a lack of jobs, but high housing costs. A Bloomberg columnist recently saw an ad for a 27 square foot trailer renting for $1,8000 a month, and a 1,400 square foot home in Minot renting for $3,900 a month. 

High unemployment counties are scattered about the rest of the country, although a number of North Carolina counties can be found in the 50 rural counties with the highest jobless rates in January 2012.

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