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America’s Dead Zones: From Detroit to Dyersburg, Why Does Prosperity Pass So Many Places By?

Some regions are recovering, while others across America remain in deep decline. How did this happen and what can we do?

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The picture is very different in America’s prosperous zones, where unemployment has been at least two percentage points below the national average for at least five years (see table 4 at the end of this article). These communities tend to be less populous than dead zones, and here employment is growing and sustainable. The wide variation in rates of unemployment between prosperous and dead zones is displayed below (click on the image to enlarge):

Most of the nation’s prosperous zones are dominated by one successful industry, such soy farming in Kansas or scientific research in New Mexico, oil and gas in Texas and places where major research institutions and universities exist. Agricultural prosperous zones grow corn, wheat, and soy and, unlike the Southwest, are not totally reliant on migrant labor.

Few prosperous areas are based on broad and diverse industries. Almost all of the areas—both prosperous and dead zones—are or were based on one or another major industry. Tens of millions of Americans live in dead zone areas that have experienced a steady decline in their industrial base and have not developed new sources of employment, while prosperous zones rely heavily on one or two dominant industries to maintain high levels of employment.

The map below presents a visual representation of dead and prosperous zones (click on image to enlarge). It shows, for example, that dead zones have existed in the South dating as far back as two decades. Furthermore, the last five years of data show almost no development of prosperous areas. The unevenness of the current national recovery is starker in dead zones, where unemployment rates have been high for longer periods of time.

Dead zones areas are evenly distributed throughout the entire contiguous US except for the Upper Midwest and New England. Prosperous zones are almost entirely comprised of the Upper Midwest down to Northern Texas and New Mexico. The surprisingly low levels of unemployment in the Upper Midwest can partially be explained by low population levels, and therefore a low supply in the labor market. There is considerable anecdotal evidence suggesting dead zones exist in certain areas of the upper Midwest (Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, etc), but the way data is collected in these states makes it hard to identify these areas.

The numbers capture only part of the story. Metro and micro areas are defined as encompassing one or more cities as well as adjoining areas. In some cases, one large city may be lumped together with two smaller communities for the purpose of describing an area; one city’s chronically high unemployment might be masked by the lower figures of its neighboring communities. Thus America’s dead zones are not limited to areas listed in the tables. Other areas, many larger than 600,000, some smaller than 50,000, contain sections (if not whole cities) that could be classified as dead zones and where high unemployment rates are common.

While different methods of gathering government data make it harder to assess the unemployment picture in New England, long-term dead zones exist in former manufacturing and mill towns such as Lawrence and Fall River, MA, Waterbury, New Britain and New Haven, CT, and Providence and Central Falls, RI. These cities have characteristics similar to dead zones. In more and more American cities the lack of opportunities and poor job prospects point to the existence of more areas that have not been, but should be, recognized as emerging dead zones.

Conventional Wisdom Falls Flat

Conventional wisdom suggests that areas of high unemployment would benefit if resident populations had higher education achievement-rates, that is, more college graduates and fewer high school dropouts. While this may be true in certain situations, it is not necessarily the case in either prosperous or dead zones. In fact there is a very weak correlation between low unemployment and educational-attainment rates (defined here as the percentage of the population over 25 with a high school degree or less and the percentage of the population over 25 with a Bachelor’s degree or higher).

 
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