The landscape of unemployment rates has not changed much since the depths of the recession. Most of the cities with the highest unemployment are in the middle of California, and to a lesser extent in the Midwest industrial belt and the east and west coasts of Florida. The California numbers show how intractable the jobless problem can be and how, in some areas, it has gone without solution.
Census data from the Bureau of Labor statistics marks three cities that had unemployment of 20% or better in January. One has a problem that might be considered temporary. Ocean City, N.J., hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, had an unemployment rate of exactly 20%, making it the third worst among all American cities and metro areas. It should rebound more quickly than cities where unemployment has been high for years.
The other two cities with jobless rates above 20% are in the regions most badly hit since 2008. In Yuma, Ariz., the unemployment rate in January was 26.5%, the highest among all cities. The building boom in the state has some hangover, and Yuma is at its center.
The city with the second highest unemployment rate is El Centro, Calif., where it was 25.6%. Merced, in the same area, ranks fourth with a rate of 18.4%. Visalia-Porterville, Calif., is at 16.8%, which puts it in fifth. The Hanford-Corcoran, Calif., jobless rate of 16.7% puts it at sixth.
Atlantic City, N.J., also ravaged by the hurricane, has a rate of 16.1%, putting it in seventh place. Back in central California, Fresno, ranks eighth at 16.0%. Nearby Modesto’s rate of 15.6% puts it in 10th place. Millville-Bridgeton, N.J., is ninth, at 15.8%. Stockton’s 15.5% is just slightly better.
So, almost all of these cities can be divided into two categories. The first are victims of weather, the second of economic conditions that show no signs of letting up.
The California cities are not just victims of real estate overbuilding. Most have among their largest employers the State of California, which almost tipped into insolvency three years ago and has taken the period since to recover. Also high on the list are city governments, the finances of which have been swamped by tax receipt declines that to a large extent are due to home prices that often have fallen by more than half. Finally, agriculture is a dominant industry in these areas. In many cases, these are dairy farms, which have been harmed by the drop in milk prices. Those prices have recovered, but the price of grain to feed cattle has spiked, as one bad problem has replaced another.
All unemployment is local, at least compared to the national average, which does not talk much about geographic areas crushed by outside circumstances. There is no reason these localities will recover at all, at least not in the foreseeable future.