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Local job data: Nearly 75% of NC counties still have fewer people working than pre-pandemic

The last local jobs report for 2021 is in. Significant strides toward recovery were made, but true economic healing has still not been realized in many communities across North Carolina.

Several rounds of federal aid have helped families navigate tough times and made the recovery from the COVID-19 recession much faster than we saw in the wake of the Great Recession. North Carolina has recovered most of the jobs that were lost in the first few months of the pandemic, while at this point in the Great Recession our state was still losing jobs. These are very different kinds of crises to be sure, but there’s no doubt that massive federal assistance in the form of Unemployment Benefits, housing assistance, deferred student loan payments, and more have kept families afloat and hastened the economic recovery.

Chart showing a better federal response to COVID-19 has led to a faster recovery than during the Great Recession.

For all of the progress made in the last year, the project of rebuilding is far from over. The statewide unemployment rate for December (3.7 percent) can make it look like North Carolina has recovered from the shock of COVID-19. Sadly, that’s not the full story in many communities across the state. Nearly three-quarters of our counties still have fewer people working than before the pandemic arrived. In many cases, the losses during COVID-19 piled on top of longer-term declines that date back to before Great Recession. Almost half of North Carolina’s counties have fewer people working than before the economic collapse of 2008, a testament to the fact that we have not made the kinds of investments many, particularly rural, communities need to reverse the flight of jobs to a few urban communities.

The story is not just about the rural-urban divide. Some cities have now recovered the jobs lost to COVID-19, but most are still trying to dig out of the hole. Employment in the Triangle, Wilmington, Greenville, and the Morganton area has surpassed pre-COVID levels. On the other hand, the Greensboro-High Point area is still more than 14,000 jobs below where it was before the pandemic, the Charlotte area is over 15,000 jobs short, and Asheville is still trying to replace 6,500 jobs.

The big question is whether we can muster the political will to keep investing in rebuilding a more economically just state. Last year, our legislature continued to hand out tax breaks to huge corporations instead of supporting people and communities that need it. Federal aid over the past few years made up for some of our state leaders’ failure to do what was needed, but the uneven pace of recovery shows there’s still a lot of work to do.

If you’re interested in the jobs picture in your community or across the state, visit our labor market page to see maps and charts of what’s going on.

Patrick McHugh is the research manager at the N.C. Budget and Tax Center.

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