clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

This map shows America’s real unemployment problem

In some places, the depression isn't over.
In some places, the depression isn't over.
Popperfoto/Getty Images

Every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistic releases their latest cut at the jobs data. And every month, we dutifully report the national unemployment rate, as if unemployment is a singular national phenomenon.

But it's not. America has one flag. But it doesn't have one unemployment rate, as this map from the BLS shows: Twmcort

What you're seeing there is average unemployment over the last year broken out by county. The differences between states and counties are tremendous. There are states in America that are enjoying genuinely good times. And then there are states with unemployment rates that, nationally, would be considered an emergency.

In Nebraska, for instance, the unemployment rate is 3.7 percent. That's lower than the national unemployment rate ever got during the roaring 90s.

But in California, the unemployment rate is over 8 percent. And there are counties in California, like Merced, where the unemployment rate is over 15 percent. (You can see your county's unemployment rate here.)

It's easy to dismiss these numbers. After all, if the unemployment rate in a state, much less a county, is so high, why don't people just move?

One reason is that some of the counties with the highest unemployment rates also have the worst housing markets. If you own a home in Fresno, it's very likely underwater. You can always simply walk away, of course. But walking away from the home you love — not to mention your family and friends — to go take a job in an unfamiliar state is a decision that's easy for rational agents to make in economic models and hard for real people to make in their actual lives. Moreover, a lot of the people who might like to move don't have the money to move, and nor do they have a way to get the money to move.

That's why Michael Strain, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has suggested the government help the unemployed in high-unemployment areas with "relocation vouchers":

These subsidies should cover a solid majority of reasonable and necessary moving expenses. We may also want to make up the difference with a low-interest loan, with a repayment scheme capped at a small percentage of annual earnings subsequent to their starting a job. Moving is a major investment that requires a fair amount of up-front cash. Many of the long-term unemployed just don't have the money and don't have much access to credit.

These kinds of subsidies should be available only to long-term unemployed workers who live in an area with a poor local labor market. Workers who have left the labor force since the start of the Great Recession should be allowed to enroll provided that they were long-term unemployed before leaving. Subsidies should also be available to workers who were long-term unemployed but have exited within the past few years from long-term unemployment into a part-time job, or into a job that pays significantly less than they earned in their previous job. And workers must move to a destination a good distance from their current residence - say, at least a two-hour drive - to be eligible for a subsidy.

This isn't the kind of program you think much about if you look at the national unemployment rate, which is 6.3 percent and falling. But it is the kind of program you think about if you look at unemployment rates across the nation, which show some places with tight labor markets that could really use more workers, and some places where workers are trapped in an unending economic depression.