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One rate does not rule them all

Unemployment is uneven across U.S. counties


The graph above shows the annual civilian unemployment rate from 1948 to 2018, and here are some highlights: Ten years ago, after the Great Recession, the U.S. unemployment rate peaked at 9.6%. (The only higher unemployment rate in this series was 9.7%, in 1982.) It gradually came down to 3.9% in 2018, the lowest in fifty years. (The rate in 1969 was 3.5%.)

But these national unemployment numbers mask the variation that exists across different regions in the U.S. Fortunately, we have GeoFRED to paint a clearer picture: The map below shows the unemployment rate for 2018 for 3,133 U.S. counties. The counties are split into two equally sized groups according to their unemployment rates: Those with lower unemployment are in blue, and those with higher unemployment are in red. Specifically, the blue group had a rate lower than 3.87%, and the red group had a rate between 3.87% and the maximum of 18.08%. (By the way, all counties in New Hampshire are blue and all counties in Arizona are red.) 

The map reveals that unemployment rates are unevenly distributed across the nation. Many counties in the Midwest have lower-than-average unemployment rates. In particular, Iowa and Nebraska counties, with only a few exceptions, are blue. In contrast, it’s not surprising to see that the Rust Belt region—e.g., Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio—is home to many counties with high unemployment rates. There are also many red counties in the Sun Belt and on the West Coast, which have rates higher than the national average.

With only the national average unemployment rate and without a county-level view, we wouldn’t know that lower unemployment rates concentrate in the Midwest and higher rates spread out over the rest of the nation.

How these graphs were created: For the first graph, search for and select “Civilian Unemployment Rate (UNRATE).” From the “Edit Graph” panel, select “Percent” for “Units” and modify the frequency to be “Annual.” Choose “Average” for “Aggregation Method.” For the map, go to GeoFRED and click the “Build New Map” button. From the “Tools” bar, select “County” as “Region Type” and “Unemployment Rate” as “Data.” Select “Annual” as “Frequency” and “Percent” as “Units.” Select “2018” as “Date.” In “Choose Colors” tab, select “rdbu” from “Divergent” and click on “Reverse Color Scheme.” From the “Edit Legend” tab, select “2” for “Number of Color Classes” and “Fractile” as “Interval Method.”

Suggested by Sungki Hong.

View on FRED, series used in this post: UNRATE


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