A year ago, the rural southeast had the highest unemployment rates in the country. Tennessee was a rural unemployment nightmare and Indiana was bleeding jobs.

Things were different in Texas, which was gaining jobs in rural counties. And the Mountain West was an apparent economic miracle, with levels of employment above the national average. 

Things have begun to even up.

The map above shows the change in unemployment rates in all rural counties from August 2009 to August of this year. (Click on the map for a more detailed view.)

The purple counties have lower unemployment rates this August than a year ago. Their unemployment rates have declined. (The dark purple counties have the largest declines.)

The yellowish counties have experienced unemployment rates higher this August than last — with the brightest color counties having the largest increases in unemployment.

Looked at this way, Alabama, which has had some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, appears to be better off than much of Texas, which has had low unemployment rates.

This is not saying that Alabama’s rural economy is doing better than rural Texas counties. What the map tells us is that there has been a shift, and that many of the counties with the highest unemployment a year ago are now doing better.

Look at Michigan and northern Indiana, two areas with deep unemployment problems a year ago. Both are showing signs of improvement — admittedly, improvement from dismal employment figures.

Meanwhile, the areas that had low unemployment last year — rural Texas, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Idaho — have seen their unemployment rates rise.

One constant is rural North Dakota. That state had low unemployment a year ago. And this year, the unemployment rates in rural North Dakota have dropped further. The state is a sea of purple.

Nationally, unemployment rates in rural American continued to drop in August, falling well below the rate for urban counties[img:UERAugust2010.jpg]

The national unemployment rate in August was 9.5%. In rural counties, however, the rate dropped to 9.2%. In exurban counties, the rate was 8.9%.

In urban counties, however, the rate was 9.7%.

Below are the 50 rural counties that had the largest declines in unemployment rates in the last year. Most of these counties have more jobs this year than in August of 2009. In other words, they haven’t reduced their unemployment rates simply by reducing the number of people looking for work. They have shown job gains.[img:DeclinesUER.gif]

And here are the 50 counties that have the largest increases in their local unemployment rates.

Only five of these counties gained jobs during this time. The rest had fewer jobs this August than in the same month last year.[img:Increaseduer.gif]

Roberto Gallardo is a research associate with the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University.