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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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Recent headlines of a brighter economic picture have given many people hope that the economy is not in another free fall. GDP growth did tick upward in the last quarter. But for many communities the picture is enduringly dark, because unemployment rates have lagged far behind the national average for years and will likely continue to do so.

While the President is putting forth a plan to help students pay off their student loans, more and more educated students are unable to find employment. Contrary to popular belief, an educated workforce doesn't really make a difference (areas with many college grads are actually doing worse than areas with fewer) and a diversified economy does not always mean a more thriving economy.

A Place Near You?

There are 216 defined metropolitan (metro) and micropolitan (micro) areas—with populations ranging from 10,000 to 4 million—that have had unemployment rates at least two percentage points higher than the national average for either 20, 10, or 5 years (see tables 1, 2, 3 at the end of this article). These are America’s dead zones. Here employment growth is stagnant or non-existent and high levels of joblessness dominate. Some areas were once prosperous while others have recently experienced economic distress. In these communities paid work is hard to find for those who have not given up looking, and widespread involuntary idleness is the norm.

Poor employment prospects are not related to periods of recession or prosperity; these communities have not had substantial and sustainable increases in employment for lengthy stretches. America’s dead zones can not be described as containing “weak labor markets” because many have had long term unemployment problems that are more than weak and not temporary. Even in zones with only 5 years of high unemployment, the prior years were hardly marked by robust job growth.

These dead zones include both rural and urban areas. Though each area is different, there are some trends. The Northwest dead zones (Oregon, Washington, and Northern California) historically had large numbers of jobs in the timber and fishing industries. Because of overfishing, many coastal communities saw jobs vanish. In addition, when the Spotted Owl was placed on the endangered species list in 1982, it forced the shuttering of many timber yards because of encroachment on newly protected forestland. Along with general overharvesting, the timber industry has been flagging ever since. Many dead zones in the Northwest now rely upon tourism and retirement as their major industries, both of which are seasonal and sensitive to fluctuations in the broader economy.

The Southwest dead zones (Southern California, New Mexico, and Texas) industries historically employed substantial labor forces either working on farms or in trade with Mexico. In both cases, employment tended to rely on the large scale movements of temporary workers. This huge amount of seasonal work has created the highest metropolitan unemployment rates in the US.

Employment in the Deep South has never fully recovered from the decline of the cotton industry and mechanization. Since then southern dead zones have experienced considerable emigration, and many areas have not made progress towards the development of alternative industries.

Dead zones along the Appalachia and Atlantic Coast (Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee) have relied either on coal or timber industries, both of which suffered steep declines in the 1970s and have yet to fully recover.

The Rust Belt’s dead zones were all once dependent on various manufacturing industries, usually but not always in the automotive. The growth of outsourcing and the decline of the American auto industry throughout the 80s and 90s left few other avenues for employment.

 
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