This City Has an Unemployment Rate of 23%, the Highest in America

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), unemployment nationwide was 8.4% in August. This was down from the two previous months. However, it remained higher than almost any month during the Great Recession. Out of the 389 American cities the BLS measures, El Centro, California, had the highest unemployment rate in August, a staggering 22.9%.

Three other cities were in almost equally deep trouble. In Yuma, Arizona, the jobless figure was 16.4%. In Atlantic City-Hammonton, New Jersey, it was 17.5%, and in Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina, Hawaii, the rate was 20.7%

Each of these four cities has an unfortunate mix of industries and companies as its major employers. Agriculture accounts for almost 50% of the jobs in El Centro, and some of those are seasonal. Construction jobs, a major part of the labor force, did not come back entirely after the Great Recession. The poverty rate is extremely high. Some experts believe a part of the population may have trouble finding jobs because English is not their first language. El Centro was the city with the highest employment in the Great Recession as well. The figure ran above 20% through much of 2009.

Yuma also was among the hardest-hit cities as jobs disappeared during the Great Recession. It did not recover with the improved job market between 2010 and 2019. A large seasonal agriculture workforce is blamed for much of the high jobless number. The largest individual employers, which include the Marine Corps Air Station and the local government and schools, are relatively small.

Atlantic City-Hammonton was the gambling capital of the eastern United States. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 led to the opening of a number of large casinos in the Northeast. Atlantic City never fully recovered from the damage of Hurricane Sandy in late October 2012.

Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina’s workforce has a large number of jobs supported by tourism. Those have disappeared almost entirely.

If the tourism industry turns around soon, Atlantic City and Kahului may add some jobs. Yuma and El Centro have long-term job structural problems that likely won’t disappear.

These four cities are not the only ones with jobless rates above 10%, the peak national figure during the Great Recession. The BLS numbers show that in Massachusetts, all seven cities measured are above this level. So are several cities in Illinois and others in California, Michigan, New Jersey and Nevada. While the national jobs figure has signaled a recovery, in these pockets of America there is almost no recovery at all.