Which Areas in America Are Worse Off Since 2016?

Although economists now expect that the coronavirus will lead to a major recession, the American economy improved steadily for nearly a decade, under both President Obama and President Trump.

Gains have been widespread since 2016, when Mr. Trump was elected, with the lowest-wage industries and workers seeing the biggest wage gains. And yet not all of America is better off.

Five percent of Americans live in counties where the economy was worse off in 2019 than in 2016, on at least two of three key economic measures.

Among the 3,142 U.S. counties, more than 1,700 had either fewer jobs, lower inflation-adjusted average wages or a higher unemployment rate in 2019 than in 2016. Almost 500 counties had setbacks in at least two of these three measures (meeting our definition of worse off). A handful of small counties were especially unfortunate, declining on all three measures.

Where are these worse-off places? Mostly in rural America, outside of metropolitan areas, though some are in small metro areas or the outer suburbs of the largest metros.

The most populous counties that are worse off on at least two measures are Fairfield, Conn.; Lucas, Ohio (where Toledo is); Anchorage Borough, Alaska; and Erie, Pa. No urban counties in the largest metros, with more than a million people, are worse off. Whereas 5 percent of the U.S. overall lives in worse-off counties, 14 percent of nonmetropolitan America lives in counties that are worse off.

Many of these worse-off counties are in two regions: a northern cluster in Nebraska, the Dakotas and Montana; and along the Lower Mississippi River in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. But nearly all states have at least one worse-off county. Worse-off counties have a higher-than-average share of agricultural and manufacturing jobs — despite the manufacturing boom of 2018 — and relatively few tech, arts and media jobs.

By and large, these recent years were a continuation of previous trends. Compared with the rest of the country, the places worse off in 2019 than in 2016 were more than four times as likely to have also been worse off in 2016 versus 2012.

Worse-off counties share something else, in addition to being rural and weighted toward agricultural and manufacturing jobs: They lean Republican.

Worse-off counties voted Trump-over-Clinton in 2016 by an average margin of 21 percentage points. The couple of dozen counties that are worse off on all three measures voted for Trump by an average margin of 47 percentage points. The rest of the country, where the vast majority of population and voters are, favored Hillary Clinton by three percentage points.

Of course, most of blue America and most of red America was better off economically in 2019 than in 2016 — and to a similar extent on average. While the most struggling places in America tended to vote for Mr. Trump, so did a disproportionate share of places with the fastest job growth since 2016. Red America includes places with a wider range of economic conditions — booming outer suburbs as well as struggling Great Plains farming communities — than blue America does.

Jed Kolko is the chief economist at Indeed.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JedKolko.

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