COVID-19’s uneven economic impacts continued through end of 2020, and a financial gulf is still facing many NC communities

RALEIGH (Feb. 3, 2021) — Local labor market data released today show the economic firestorm unleashed by COVID-19 continues to rage across most of the state. Even as North Carolina’s most affluent cities and people have recovered, the economic harm is continuing for communities and families who were already struggling to make ends meet before the crisis.

“We really shouldn’t talk about the COVID-19 recession as a monolithic thing; it’s really several totally different kinds of recessions depending on what you do for a living and where you live,” said Patrick McHugh, Research Manager with the North Carolina Budget & Tax Center. “This crisis is targeting North Carolina’s worst paid workers and most economically disadvantaged communities with eerie precision, even while a lot of people who were doing great before the pandemic never missed a paycheck.”

The scale of the economic harm has not been met with an adequate policy response. North Carolina Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits, for example, started running out in the latter half of 2020 while there still were not enough jobs available for everyone who needed one. By November of last year, fewer than 75,000 North Carolinians were receiving continuing UI benefits while more than 300,000 were actively looking for work. Federal benefits have partially filled the gap, but more state and federal aid will be needed to bridge North Carolina families to the other side of the COVID-19 recession.

Economic challenges facing North Carolina include: 

  • As biggest cities recover faster, regional job hubs suffer more sustained job losses: Some of the worst job losses during the first few months of the pandemic occurred in North Carolina’s largest cities and tourist regions. Over the past few months, cities like Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte have recovered more of the jobs initially lost during the pandemic, while many of the job hubs that support other regions of the state continue to see sustained job losses. Regional job centers that have experienced some of the worst declines since February include Asheville (-8.4%), Goldsboro (-8.0%), Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton (-7.7%), Wilmington (-7.4%), Greensboro-High Point (-6.9%), Rocky Mount (-6.6%), Fayetteville (-6.0%), Greenville (-5.9%), and New Bern (-5.7%).

  • COVID-19 has either erased all employment gains or deepened losses since the start of the Great Recession in a majority of counties: Nearly 60 of North Carolina’s 100 counties had fewer people working at the end of 2020 than before the Great Recession. Many parts of the state had never recovered all of the jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession, so the losses during COVID-19 are further compounding a long-term problem.

  • Most counties have seen a huge increase in the number of people looking for work: Even with many North Carolinians having been forced out of the labor market entirely due to illness, caring for a child, or simply not seeing employment opportunities to be found, most counties had far more people looking for work at the end of 2020 than before COVID-19. In nearly half of North Carolina’s counties (44 out of 100), the number of people actively looking for work has grown by at least 50 percent since the start of the pandemic.

For charts showing the most recent labor data and COVID-19 job data, visit the Budget & Tax Center’s Labor Market page at

For more context on the economic choices facing North Carolina, check out the Budget & Tax Center’s Prosperity Watch report.

The nonpartisan Budget & Tax Center is a project of the NC Justice Center, which works to eliminate poverty in North Carolina by ensuring every household in the state has access to the resources, services and fair treatment it needs to achieve economic security. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT Patrick McHugh, Budget & Tax Center Research Manager, at or 919-856-2183; or Mel Umbarger, Budget & Tax Center Senior Communications Specialist, at