Unemployment in This American City at Great Depression Levels

The COVID-19 pandemic caused unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression starting in April last year. By last month, the jobless figure had rebounded to 6.2%, still well above the 3.5% a year earlier. That 3.5% level was the best in 50 years. The job recovery has been uneven. Some cities still suffer from double-digit jobless rates. In one, the unemployment level is as high as some years during the Great Depression.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently issued its Metropolitan Employment and Unemployment Summary for January. In a sign that the jobs situation in the United States continues to be troubling, unemployment rates were higher in January than a year earlier in 376 of the 389 metropolitan areas tracked, as well as lower in nine metros and unchanged in four. El Centro, California, had the highest unemployment rate at 16.5%, while Logan, Utah/Idaho, had the lowest rate at 2.5%. That means the Logan rate was much better than the national rate at the peak of the recovery from the Great Recession a year ago.

The Great Depression ran from 1930 to 1938. The unemployment rate rose and fell on sharp dips in gross domestic product and minor recoveries. The worst year was 1933, when the jobless rate was 24.9%. The “better” years were 1931 (15.9%), 1936 (16.9%) and 1927 (14.3%). These put the El Centro rate in a terrible context.

El Centro is poor compared to most of the nation. The median household income in the city is $48,472, about three-quarters of the national figure. The 25.1% poverty rate is about double the national figure. According to media reports, it has had the highest jobless rate in the country many months since 2014. El Centro’s jobs market is dominated by the agricultural industry. Much of the work is seasonal and depends on the demand for farm produce.

The three cities with the worst unemployment rates after El Centro rely on tourism, which has been undermined by the pandemic. Kahului, Hawaii, had a jobless rate of 13.8%. In Ocean City, New Jersey, it was 12.6%, and Atlantic City, New Jersey’s jobless rate was 12.5%.

The 20 Cities With the Highest Unemployment Rate in America

City Labor Force Unemployed
El Centro 65,042 16.5%
Kahului 81,563 13.8%
Ocean City 44,653 12.6%
Atlantic City 115,049 12.5%
McAllen 364,596 11.9%
Odessa 79,707 11.8%
Beaumont 171,724 11.6%
Los Angeles 6,433,349 11.5%
Merced 113,874 11.4%
Visalia 194,739 11.3%
Salinas 202,761 11.2%
Yuma 94,419 11.1%
Rockford 156,027 11.1%
Farmington 49,929 10.9%
Bakersfield 381,232 10.8%
Hanford 55,802 10.7%
Brownsville 169,901 10.5%
Ponce 86,615 10.5%
Yuba City 72,521 10.2%
Fresno 444,676 10.0%

Click here to see which is the poorest county in each state.