Last week’s monthly job report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was better than expected, but another recent report from the bureau shows rural America still has a way to go to get back to pre-pandemic employment levels.

In April the bureau released its annual average employment report for 2022. As the name implies, this report takes jobs data for the entire year and produces a single average employment number for each county in the U.S. This data provides a longer-term view than monthly reports of how the American economy is performing for working people.

The good news is that rural America added nearly 738,000 jobs in the last two years. The bad news is that these gains didn’t completely offset the 953,000 jobs rural America lost during the first year of the pandemic.

In 2022, there were 1.1% fewer jobs in rural counties than there were in 2019. Metropolitan counties had on average about 1% more jobs last year than before the pandemic.

There are important regional variations on these general trends. But on average, job prospects were more limited in rural counties.

  • Rural counties had 215,00 fewer jobs in 2022 than in 2019.
  • Six out of every 10 rural counties had fewer jobs in 2022 than in 2019.
  • A majority of metropolitan counties (56%) had more jobs last year than three years ago.
This graph compares annual employment in 2020, 2021, and 2022 to 2019. It shows that rural counties did not has as big a percentage decline in employment initially but have had slower recovery since the first year of the pandemic. (Daily Yonder/Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Regional Variation

  • States in the Northeast, Great Lakes region, and the Great Plains had a higher percentage of rural counties that lost jobs.
  • Other regions with a larger proportion of counties with job losses were along the Texas border and gulf, the Black Belt South, coastal California, and parts of the Rocky Mountain West.
  • Fourteen states saw gains in metropolitan employment while losing jobs in rural counties.
  • States with the biggest negative gap between metro and rural employment change were Colorado (metropolitan employment grew 3.6% while rural employment fell 4.2% for a gap of 7.8 points) North Dakota (metropolitan employment grew 3.8% while rural employment fell 3.6 points, for a gap of 7.4 percentage points), and Texas (metropolitan employment grew 5.5% while rural employment remained flat, for a gap of 5.5 points).

Variation by County Types

  • Counties in medium-sized metropolitan areas (250,000 to 999,999 residents) had the biggest growth in jobs, at 1.3% for 2022 compared to 2019.
  • The suburbs of major metropolitan areas (1 million or more residents) were a close second with a 1.1% gain in employment.
  • The core counties of major metropolitan areas and small metropolitan counties (under 250,000 residents) had growth in jobs since the pandemic, but just barely. The core counties of major metros saw job growth of 0.6% while small metros employment grew 0.3%

Monthly Job Gains

The most recent county-level monthly job reinforces the prospects of slow job recovery in rural counties. Rural counties added about 85,000 jobs in February 2023 compared to the previous February, a gain of 0.4%.

Definitions: Major metros have 1 million or more residents, Medium metros have 250,000 to 999,999 residents, Small metros have under 250,000 residents. Nonmetro areas are counties that are not within a metropolitan statistical areas (OMB 2013). Nonmetro is used synonymously with rural in this analysis. Core counties are the central counties of metropolitan areas, generally containing the areas' major cities. Suburbs are metro counties lying on the periphery of these metro areas.

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