Job Losses Explode in Rural America

In the last 13 months, the number of unemployed people living in rural America has increased by 297,000. All but 15,000 of those jobs were lost in one month, December 2008.

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The recession came to rural America in December and by the time the month ended more than 282,000 jobs were gone.

The jobs lost in rural counties in December 2008 dwarfed the losses of the previous year.  During the first 12 months of the current recession — from December 2007 through November 2008 — rural counties lost just under 15,000 jobs.

In December 2008 alone, however, the nation’s 2,048 rural counties lost 282,000 jobs, according to figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than nine out of ten of the jobs lost in rural America since the beginning of the recession disappeared in one month — December 2008.

In December, the national unemployment rate was 7.1%. The rural unemployment rate was 7.6%, according to BLS figures

Jobs losses were enormous in all parts of the country in December. Urban counties lost 858,000 jobs in December and exurban counties lost 119,000 jobs in December 2008. Half of all jobs lost in the United States over the last 13 months vanished in December.

The job losses were distributed across the rural U.S. The map above shows one month increases in unemployed workers in rural and exurban counties. (Urban counties are in white.) The darker the brown, the higher the percentage increase in unemployed between November and December 2008. Green counties reported a decrease in unemployed workers in December.

The greatest increase in the number of unemployed in December was in Shelby County, Missouri (in red on the map). The county had 173 unemployed residents at the beginning of December and 322 at the end of the month — an increase of 86 percent. 

The largest percentage increases in the number of unemployed workers can be found in  counties in the Great Plains. Large sections of rural Texas, Kansas and Illinois showed decreases in unemployment in December.

Texas was the only state in the country to have an increase of jobs in its rural and exurban counties — and that was a miniscule 131 jobs.

(For this study, the Yonder used the Bureau of Labor Statistics “local area unemployment statistics.” This data includes information from household surveys as well as reports from employers. National unemployment figures are typically based only on reports from employers. For an explanation of how the data sets differ, go here.) 

Looking only at rural and exurban counties, Michigan had the highest unemployment rate of any state in the country, at 11.5%. (See chart below for all the states.) Rural and exurban counties in Michigan lost more than 25,000 jobs in December, the most of any state. 

Oregon, South Carolina and California also had double-digit unemployment rates in their rural and exurban counties in December. Twenty-two states had unemployment rates in their rural and exurban areas that were higher than the total U.S. average of 7.4% in December.

The lowest unemployment rates in rural America could be found in Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota and New Hampshire. 

The December unemployment report hints of troubles ahead for states that currently have relatively low numbers of jobless. The number of unemployed jumped over 21% in Iowa, a state with only a 5.3% unemployment rate in its rural and exurban counties. North Dakota has the second lowest rural unemployment rate in the country — but the number of jobless increased by 20% in December.

The full report on the states and their rural and exurban counties is below.

Tim Murphy/BLS
This table shows the change in the number of jobless in each state and in the rural and exurban portions of each state

The highest unemployment rates in rural America were concentrated in Michigan. Twenty of the 50 rural counties with the highest unemployment rates were in Michigan. See chart below for the 50 rural counties with the worst unemployment rates for December 2008, and what their unemployment rate was a year earlier.

Tim Murphy/BLS
This chart ranks the fifty rural counties with the highest unemployment rates in December 2008. It also shows the unemployment rate from December 2007.

Reasons for the spike in unemployment varied from region to region. Northeast Indiana, for example, is home to a cluster of recreational vehicle makers. As fuel prices soared, credit disappeared and the recession took hold, RV makers began laying off workers or shutting down business entirely. 

Rural Lagrange County, Indiana, near the center of the RV manufacturing cluster, had only a 5% unemployment rate a year ago. In December of 2008, however, its unemployment rate had soared to over 15%. And the job losses continued in the region as more layoffs were announced in early February. 

Kay Westhues
Empty house and horse in Lagrange County, Indiana, near Mongo

Similarly, houseboat makers have clustered on the lakes in southern Kentucky and east Tennessee. These manufacturers. who make boats that can cost up to $500,000, have seen their business plummet. The companies have laid off workers, according to Bill Estep of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, or closed entirely. 

Exurban counties have been hard-hit, too. Below is the list of the 50 exurban counties with the highest unemployment rates in December 2008. (Exurban counties are within metropolitan areas but still have a high proportion of residents who live in rural settings.)

Again, the reasons for rising unemployment vary from place to place. In Deschutes County, Oregon, the unemployment rate has nearly doubled in the past year even as the number of jobs has increased. The problem in the fast-growing area around Bend is that more people are moving into the region than there are jobs being created. “The phenomenon we’ve seen here is what happens all the time, is they move here without jobs,” said Roger Lee with Economic Development for Central Oregon. 

Tim Murphy/BLS
This chart lists the 50 exurban counties with the highest unemployment rates in December 2008. Exurban counties are in metropolitan regions, near big cities, but a large portion of their populations live in rural settings.




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