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A Jobless Decade? Depends Where

The first decade of this century was a dud for job creation nationwide. With a weak recovery from the 2001 recession followed by the Great Recession, the nation as a whole gained almost no jobs during the decade (actually, there was a 0.3 percent increase). That made the aughts the first decade since the Great Depression without any substantial job growth.

But as with so many national statistics, this national average hides enormous regional variation. And since, for most people, job markets are regional, this regional variation really matters for working people. The map below shows what happened to employment in each of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas from the end of 1999 to the end of 2009. 

Metro areas in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions mainly lost jobs. Detroit lost the most, shedding about one out of every five jobs it had at the end of 1999. Metro areas in the South and West mostly gained jobs. McAllen, Texas, gained the most; it had more than 40 percent more jobs at the end of 2009 than at the end of 1999. Even places like Las Vegas and Orlando, hit hard by the collapse of their housing bubbles during the Great Recession, had double-digit job growth during the decade.

At first glance, the map looks like one that could have been drawn before the Great Recession. It shows the longstanding pattern of Sun Belt growth and Snow Belt decline. Does that mean that the Great Recession didn’t affect the long-term pattern of regional growth?

Far from it. In parts of Great Lakes auto manufacturing country, the combination of the Great Recession with earlier long-term stagnation meant that employment at the end of 2009 was down to the levels of the 1980s. Youngstown had about as many jobs at the end of 2009 as it had at the beginning of 1983. In many of the metro areas with the biggest housing bubbles, which were growing at a torrid pace before those bubbles burst, the Great Recession erased four to eight years of job growth. Las Vegas had about as many jobs at the end of 2009 as it had at the end of 2004. And in many parts of the Sun Belt that never had a big housing bubble or housing bust, the Great Recession shaved off just a few years (and sometimes just a few months) of job growth. Austin and Virginia Beach had about the same number of jobs at the end of last year as they had in the middle of last year.

The crux of the story is that the Great Recession affected different places in different ways. (For more of that story, see the latest MetroMonitor from Brookings.) What’s remarkable is that the interregional differences in the recession’s impact affected metro areas’ long-term growth patterns. The recession contributed to a big growth gap between the hardest-hit auto-dependent Great Lakes metros and the rest of the Northeast and Midwest. Likewise, it drove a big wedge between the growth rates of the housing-bust Sub Belt metros and other Sun Belt metros. If those gaps persist, then the way we think about regional growth will change. We won’t be talking about Sun Belt and Snow Belt anymore. Instead, we’ll be talking about the two Sun Belts and the two Snow Belts.

Ten Year Percent Change in Employment, 4th quarter of 1999 to 4th quarter of 2009

Ten year percent change in employment, fourth quarter of 1999 to fourth quarter of 2009

  • Howard Wial is executive director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois, Chicago, where he is also an associate research professor. He is a nonresident senior fellow of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. His work focuses on manufacturing and urban and regional economic development. He is also an expert on labor and employment policy, workforce development, innovation, productivity, and competitiveness.