The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
Rural America was spared the large layoffs and rising unemployment during the first year of the recession. Most of the jobs lost through November 2008 were located in the nation’s cities.
News reports from around the country, however, shows that rural America is now feeling the full brunt of the recession. Several states report high unemployment rates in rural regions. In Oregon, for example, one-third of the state’s 36 counties have unemployment rates of at least 10 percent — and those areas outside the densely populated Willamette Valley have been the “hardest hit,” according to an Associated Press report.
In November, rural counties in the U.S. had an unemployment rate of 6.8%, slightly above the urban rate of 6.4%. The number of unemployed workers, however, was increasing faster in urban areas.
Reports from around the country over the past several days show that rural communities are catching up in this race that nobody wants to win. Rural communities that already have had rates of unemployment in the Yonder’s November study appear to be getting worse. And regions that had minimal job loss are beginning to experience layoffs.
Here is a rundown on the latest news about rural unemployment:
• The highest unemployment rate in the state of Oregon in December was Grant County, in Eastern Oregon. Nearly 16% of the workforce there is without a job.
Rural Oregon’s unemployment rate was high in November — 9.4% — but declines in the housing market are dragging down the state’s wood products industry, making matters worse. “Home construction has fallen off a cliff,” Joe Cortright, a Portland economist, told The Oregonian newspaper. “When housing starts plummet, related industries take a beating, too.”
Wood products manufacturing is the largest industry in Crook County and the unemployment rate there in December reached 14%.
• Rural unemployment in the South was well above the national average last year, but reports from several states show that the number of jobless workers is increasing. The Birmingham newspaper published a story headlined, “Unemployment hits hard in south Alabama rural areas.”
Unemployment in south Alabama “spiked in December,” the paper reported. In Chambers County, a wood products facility announced it would close. Chambers County already had an unemployment rate of 14%.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, which had some of the highest rural unemployment in the country in November, the market has worsened.
Orangeburg County had an unemployment rate of 13.6% — and that was only the 13th highest rate among South Carolina’s 46 counties. Rural Allendale County had the state’s highest unemployment rate, 19.7%, up from 17.5% in November.
“Claims for unemployment insurance have been out of sight, construction jobs continue to fall and manufacturing jobs continue to fall,” a state labor market analyst told the Orangeburg newspaper. “We have had a poor Christmas hiring season and that combined is pushing our unemployment rate to record levels.” Rhode Island is the only state with a higher unemployment rate in December than South Carolina.
In North Carolina, half the state’s unemployed in December lived in rural counties. More than 75% of the manufacturing jobs lost in the state last year were in the state’s 85 rural counties, according to Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center. Sixteen of the 17 counties with unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher were rural.
• The Muncie, Indiana, newspaper reports increases in unemployment that is stretching social service agencies, especially in rural townships. The agency that helps with heating bills in rural Grant County, Indiana, says it expects to run out of money by mid-February.
• Rural Huron County, Ohio, now has the highest unemployment rate in the state, 13.5%. The average rural unemployment in Ohio in November was only 7.7%. “Everyone’s looking for a job, but there’s nothing out there,” one unemployed worker told the Sandusky newspaper. “I haven’t even gotten an offer for employment. I haven’t even gotten a phone call saying they’re interested in anything I have to offer.”
Many of the people in Huron County worked at nearby automobile plants that have closed or cut hours. Area farms are slowed by winter weather and farm workers are temporarily out of a job.
Huron has seen worse. In January 1983 the unemployment rate hit 23%. Just a year ago, however, the rate was 9.3%.
• North Dakota was a bright spot in the nation’s bleak economic landscape in November. Rural unemployment there was only 3.1%.
Recently, however, employers have been cutting jobs. American Express recently closed a call center in Linton that was, at one time, a national development success story. The call center was started during the drought of the late 1980s by Hal Rosenbluth, a Philadelphia businessman. Rosenbluth was so happy with the Linton facility that he opened several others in North Dakota.
American Express took over the Linton center in 2004 and now the North Dakota town is caught up in the layoffs being announced by financial firms. AmEx laid off 46 workers in Linton.
“It was a shock not only to the American Express employees but to the whole community,” resident James Waisanen told KFYR television. (Go here to see KFYR’s video report.)
“It’s gonna hurt the economy, I’m sure,” said John Schatz, another Linton resident. “All these people are, there’s people from the surrounding towns working here and they come here, they buy groceries, they go to the store, the drugstore and pick up things. Anytime you lose an employer in town you’re losing money coming in to the city.”