Half of U.S. Counties Were Losing Jobs Long Before COVID-19

The U.S. economy is careening toward a recession. Some financiers, like the top economist at Bank of America, believe we’re already in one. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin,while pushing a last-minute $1 trillion stimulus package this week, warned that unemployment could soon jump to 20 percent, the highest since the Great Depression. 

Back in the good old pre-virus days, 40 percent of people in the United States said they would have trouble coming up with $400 to cover an emergency expense.

In the last month, one in five households experienced layoffs or a cut in work hours. And, by extension, a majority of states recorded a drastic rise in unemployment claims, at the same level as (or worse than) the financial crash of 2008.   

But what these terror-inducing narratives neglect is that, before America was beset by a job-killing virus, a large swath of the country was already struggling. According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW)—often called the “gold standard” of employment measurements—nearly half of U.S. counties (1,414 out of 3,126) lost jobs between 2018 and 2019.

While some states, like California, only lost jobs in a handful of counties (five of fifty-eight), nearly all of the states in the Grain and Rust Belts witnessed job losses in most of their counties. 

A majority of counties in nineteen states lost jobs, and seven states saw a downturn of at least 40 percent. (Minnesota and Michigan, for example, are both at 47 percent.)

Despite the numbers at the county level, just five states show a statewide job loss.  

Why the disconnect? More often than not, big job gains in one or a handful of counties are making up for the  losses in the other counties. In Wisconsin, if you remove Dane County, the state’s leading job creator and second largest county, the rest of the state experienced a net job loss. It’s the same in Michigan, where two heavily urbanized counties, Wayne and Oakland, are driving growth; Iowa, too, if you take  Polk and Dallas counties off the map.

One reason for these county-level job losses is likely the ongoing farm crisis, leading to the highest number of farm bankruptcies since the Great Recession. Another possible culprit is a decline in the manufacturing sector, which plunged the Rust Belt into a recession for all of 2019.   

Unfortunately, this slump in half the country wasn’t the only thing putting economic stress on people before the coronavirus hit.  

According to the Real Wage Index, wages fell nine percent since 2008, and declined 1.3 percent since 2017. Overall job growth, similarly, slowed from 2017 to 2020, when compared to the three years before Donald Trump’s election.

Back in the good old pre-virus days, 40 percent of people in the United States said they would have trouble coming up with $400 to cover an emergency expense. And according to the recent numbers from the Federal Reserve, the overall debt was also at an all-time high.

Plus, most workplaces are opting not to give their employees the extended paid leave that the coronavirus will almost certainly demand. In fact, according to the National Paid Sick Days Coalition, one in three private sector workers does not have any paid sick days, while 70 percent of the lowest-paid workers lack them. The same is true for paid vacation time—one-third of people don’t have it. 

While the new paid leave law offers a lifeline to many of these workers, the one-third of workers that earn all or part of their income from the so-called “gig economy,” have to wait to recoup their losses on next year’s tax return. In addition, approximately half of all workers in bigger companies  are not covered by the law; they must, instead, rely on their bosses’ good graces.. 

Walmart, for example, is by far the nation’s largest employer and one of the most dangerous places to work these days. But it has expanded its paid sick leave to only two weeks, and “may” give more time off for people who’ve contracted COVID-19. For Walmart workers staying home to care for a loved one who is sick (guess where they caught it?) or watching children because their school or daycare has closed, they are out of luck and in desperate need of help. 

This is why so much more needs to be demanded of large employers (like Walmart), and why some sort of guaranteed minimum income—in the form of checks sent to each household—is being proposed by both sides of the aisle. 

However, not everyone is on board. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham doesn’t want to “send people a government check,” and said it really wouldn’t get “you anywhere, because there is no place to spend a thousand dollars.”

Except Walmart, of course. 

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