Regional Variations in Unemployment Highlight Challenges and Opportunities

While often derided as a simplified look at the health of the economy, the unemployment rate is still one of the most pervasive indicators of economic prosperity (or lack thereof) that we use. Even though the local unemployment rate has continued to fall since the end of the Great Recession in 2009 (to a level of 4.4% in West Michigan in February 2017), it is important to note that unemployment is not distributed evenly throughout the region. In this post, we will look at the pockets of high unemployment at a county and Census tract level.

How much does unemployment vary throughout the region?

With a February 2017 unemployment rate of 4.4% for the region, we are seemingly at full employment. While this may be true in the aggregate, the level of unemployment within the region ranges from a low of 3.4% in Ottawa County to 10.9% in Oceana County. 

This spread between high- and low-unemployment counties within the West Michigan has been around when the economy is healthy, in recession, and in recovery. In 2000, the difference between the county with the highest and lowest unemployment rates was 3.3%, while that difference reached 6.3% in 2009 (Lake County was at 16.7% unemployment; Barry was at 10.4%). 

Pockets of high unemployment in metro and rural areas

Within almost every county in West Michigan, we also see high unemployment in many smaller areas. (This data is available from the American Community Survey, and are 5-year estimates.) As you can see in the map below, unemployment can range from near-zero to well over 20 percent. Being able to identify these pockets of high unemployment is a first step in determining where to focus efforts of education and workforce development.

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