Writings and observations

Different places, different economies

As you hear politicians talk about the economy this season, and next, bear in mind this question: Which economy?

Idaho’s statewide unemployment rates, for example, get substantial notice in news reports when they come out each month, but county jobless rates often are a little more obscure. (We’ll bypass for the moment the many questions associated with what those statistics include, and don’t.)

As of March, for example, the statewide unemployment rate was 7.9%. (It fell by two-tenths of a point the next month; March is the most recent month for which all county statistics are available.) But it was not the same everywhere. In Adams County, it was 18.6%, while in Owyhee County – in the same region of the state, also a rural area and barely an hour’s drive away – it was 4.9%. If all of Idaho were at 4.9%, it would not be said to have a significant unemployment problem at all; at 18.6%, Idaho would have slipped into serious depression.

This broad range isn’t unusual. Go back pre-slump to March 2007, when the statewide rate was 2.8%, and you’ll find numbers much smaller but also highly variable. Then, Clearwater County was at 7.2% (Adams was second), while the lowest jobless rate was 1.3% in Teton County. (The growth of high-end resort areas slowed during the slump.)

In the last few years, the same set of counties have bunched together at the high and low ends. Adams, Clearwater, Benewah, Valley (since collapse of the Tamarack resort development) and Shoshone have been high-jobless, consistently, often in close to that order. The low-jobless counties much of the time since the slump has begun have included Owyhee, Oneida, Franklin and Bear Lake.

This seems to belie the usual talk of an urban-rural split, wherein most jobs and money migrating to urban areas (which tend to rank toward the middle among Idaho’s 44 in jobless rates) and leaving rural counties, especially counties where population has been stagnant or has even declined. But “slow-population” described most counties both at high and low on the jobless list. And all of them rely a lot on resource industries of some sort.

Why the gap? Kathryn Tacke, an analyst with the state Department of Labor, pointed to the difference between the timber economy and the farm economy. In timber areas (Adams, Clearwater, Benewah, Shoshone, and several other high-jobless counties fit), recovery has been sporadic, as the national construction industry has been slow to return. But, she noted, with good prices for commodities like wheat and cattle, “it’s actually been a pretty good time for farmers. And farmers have been spending money.” That helps tamp down unemployment in rural southern counties like Franklin and Owyhee.

The splits run more ways, too. Ada and Canyon counties are seamlessly united in one dense population area, but Ada’s unemployment rate in March was 7.2%, while Canyon’s was 10.1%. The specific mix of industry patterns, and probably government employment, likely to have a lot to do with it.

This is all a lot more specific than you might think from the politicial rhetoric floating around and getting ever thicker.

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