Half the People in This State Are Not Working

The COVID-19 pandemic drove unemployment rates to levels last seen during the Great Depression, particularly in March and April. A strong recovery improved the unemployment rate to 6.3% in January. The number is still much worse than in February of last year, when the rate was 3.5%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently published its Regional and State Employment, 2020 Annual Averages. The annual report indicated that, nationwide, the jobless rate averaged 8.1% in America last year. Unemployment rates rose in all 50 states and the District of Columbia when compared to 2019. The states with the highest unemployment rates were Nevada at 12.8% and Hawaii at 11.6%.

Another measure of employment in the United States the BLS uses is employment-population ratios. That is the number of people employed compared to the total working-age population. The figure also worsened in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The BLS researchers described the nationwide situation thus:

Overall, 23 states and the District of Columbia had employment-population ratios higher than the U.S. ratio of 56.8 percent, 15 states had lower ratios, and 12 states had ratios that were not appreciably different from that of the nation.

As the Economic Policy Institute points out: “Lows in the employment-to-population ratio correspond with economic downturns.” Put simply, the pandemic and resulting economic harm drove people out of the workforce.

In two states, only about half of the employable workforce worked in 2020. These were West Virginia at 50.3% and Mississippi at 50.6%. At the other end of the spectrum, the states with the highest figures were Nebraska at 66.7% and North Dakota at 66.0%.

While the BLS does not draw a line that connects the employment-to-population ratio to household income or poverty, several relatively poor southern states have lower numbers. The number was 53.8% in Kentucky, 54.9% in North Carolina, 54.2% in South Carolina and 54.1% in Alabama. In several states that tend to be better off financially, the figure is relatively high: New Hampshire at 62.9%, Minnesota at 65.3% and Wisconsin at 61.7%.

These states have employment-population ratios significantly
different from the U.S. average in 2020:

State Ratio
United States 56.8
Alabama 54.1
Alaska 58.7
Arkansas 53.9
California 54.4
Colorado 62.8
Connecticut 59.8
District of Columbia 64.6
Florida 52.9
Hawaii 52.7
Idaho 60.0
Indiana 58.5
Iowa 63.7
Kansas 63.1
Kentucky 53.8
Louisiana 53.2
Maryland 62.0
Massachusetts 59.0
Michigan 54.6
Minnesota 65.3
Mississippi 50.6
Missouri 59.3
Montana 59.0
Nebraska 66.7
Nevada 53.8
New Hampshire 62.9
New Mexico 52.3
New York 53.7
North Carolina 54.9
North Dakota 66.0
South Carolina 54.2
South Dakota 65.0
Texas 57.9
Utah 64.8
Vermont 60.1
Virginia 60.6
Washington 58.8
West Virginia 50.3
Wisconsin 61.7
Wyoming 61.5