Prosperity Watch, Issue 44, No.3: Recovery comes to cities, bypasses most of rural North Carolina

National and statewide employment data in the last few months contain signs of a strengthening economy. Employment gains have been strong for several months running, reversing the severe job losses from the Great Recession. However, data for local communities show that a serious and growing divide is being created in North Carolina. While the metro areas have largely made up for jobs lost during the Great Recession, many rural parts of the state have not recovered to pre-recession levels of employment.

As can be seen in the map above, talking about a single North Carolina “economy” doesn’t make very much sense. On the one end, counties that are in or around metro centers have largely surpassed pre-recession levels of employment, with some counties posting 10% or greater gains. That sounds like healthy growth, and it is. On the other end, however, many counties have not experienced what anyone would consider a return to robust economic performance. Sixty of North Carolina’s 100 counties have not gotten back to their pre-recession levels of employment, and in fifteen counties current employment is more than 10 percent lower than it was in 2007.

One could argue that some of the shifts seen here are simply the result of increasing urbanization, a trend that goes back well before the Great Recession. As more and more working age people move toward urban centers, the employment level in many rural areas should naturally drop. However, the losses in employment that many counties have experience cannot be entirely explained by urban migration. Based on data from the North Carolina State Demographer, there are only 23 counties in North Carolina where the change in employment between 2007 and 2014 outpaced the change working age residents. Put another way, the growth of employment has not kept up with working age population in more than three-quarters of the counties in North Carolina.

While some parts of the state are posting enviable economic growth, that prosperity is not touching vast swaths of North Carolina. Anything like full recovery is going to require honestly looking at what it will take for rural North Carolina to prosper in the 21st century economy.

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