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March local labor market reveals diverging paths to prosperity

Commonly cited labor market figures like the statewide unemployment rate often mask the damage that climate-driven natural disasters, ineffective tax policy, and one-shoe-fits-all economic development has wreaked upon rural corridors in North Carolina. Since the beginning of the Great Recession, the number of the state’s employed has grown by approximately 577,500, but most of that growth has been concentrated in urban N.C.; just 10 counties have accounted for 505,000 of the jobs gained — or over 90 percent of the net state employment growth since the start of the recession. At the same time, 45 counties that are primarily in eastern North Carolina have lost nearly 77,000 jobs since December of 2007, revealing deeply troubling trends which challenge the state’s broader recovery narrative.

Solely focusing on North Carolina’s positive economic measures as proxy diagnoses for the state’s overall economic health is a dangerous game to play. Too many leaders are ignoring pretty alarming regional economic outcomes to prop up tax-cut theory. Doing so risks isolating and denying pathways to prosperity for swaths of the state.

Here are a couple of indicators illustrating differential regional outcomes:

  • Job growth is too concentrated: March’s labor market data show that with more than 400,000 jobs created, just five counties (Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Union, and Cabarrus) have accounted for almost three-quarters of the state’s total job growth (577,550) since the start of the Great Recession. Rounding out the top ten counties were Buncombe, Johnston, New Hanover, Forsyth, and Guilford, adding almost 100,000 jobs since December of 2007.
  • Forty-five counties lost jobs since December 2007: Since the beginning of the Great Recession, 45 counties have lost jobs, many in eastern North Carolina. Robeson, Randolph, Wilson, Rutherford, and Sampson counties have lost the most jobs since 2007, a collective 26,000 job decline. March’s data also revealed 27 “double whammy” counties, those that have lost jobs since the Great Recession while also losing jobs year-over-year.
  • Micro-power: The story in North Carolina’s smaller cities also reveals disparate economic performance over the past decade and in the past year. Some micropolitan areas, like Oxford and Boone, have demonstrated strong economic growth over the past decade, and in the past year. They have added jobs to their regions by a rate of 24 and 17 percent respectively since 2007. These two northern N.C. micros also have maintained consistently lower unemployment rates than the state average over the past two years. This is remarkable, given they do not appear to be explicitly buoyed by major metropolitan economies. Regional neighbors Henderson and North Wilkesboro do not share the same kind of economic prosperity. Both micropolitan areas, while sharing local characteristics with Oxford and Boone, have lost jobs since the start of the Great Recession and year-over-year.

 

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