Urban Wire See Where Earnings Are Growing and Unemployment Is Lowest through Customizable Data Visualization
Erin Huffer, Aravind Boddupalli
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National unemployment hit an impressive 50-year low in September. However, looking only at national trends can hide large state-by-state variations in economic activity. For example, in some states, including Arizona, Maryland, and New Mexico, the unemployment rate has not fully returned to what it was before the Great Recession. Looking at state-level data offers a more accurate picture of how Americans are actually doing.

State-level policy debates require state-level data—ideally, data that people can quickly find, visualize, and understand. The State Economic Monitor, an interactive tool from the State and Local Finance Initiative, allows users to track economic indicators in states of their choice and build customized maps and charts highlighting the results.

Below we use data from the State Economic Monitor to show the trajectory of state labor markets as they collapsed and recovered from the Great Recession, and how state earnings respond to policy levers and economic conditions.

Where is unemployment the lowest?

During the Great Recession, Michigan experienced a dramatic spike in unemployment—the fastest rise and highest peak of any state. Michigan’s state unemployment rate crested at 14.6 percent in June 2009.

But in the decade since, Michigan’s economy and unemployment rate have steadily improved, and although the state may still feel some lingering effects of the 2008 recession, it currently enjoys a decade-low unemployment rate.

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(See the interactive chart here.)

In contrast to Michigan, Washington’s unemployment rate never strayed far from the national average during the recession. While most may know that Washington is home to Amazon, one of America’s largest employers, fewer may be aware that Washington currently has the sixth highest state unemployment rate in the nation—and a higher rate than Michigan.

Where are earnings growing?

Average weekly earnings for all private-sector employees in the United States averaged $980 in September 2019. Among the 50 states, weekly earnings ranged from $755 in Mississippi to $1,664 in the District of Columbia.

North Dakota’s real weekly earnings have increased dramatically over the last decade as the state’s economy has flourished thanks to an oil boom that began in the mid-2000s. In 2007 (the beginning of the State Economic Monitor’s earnings data), North Dakota ranked 45th in average weekly earnings across all states; today, it has roared up to the 14th place—no small feat.

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(See the interactive chart here.)

Earnings and wage growth are affected by numerous factors. In North Dakota’s case, a surge in a key industry (oil and energy) drove much of the state’s wage growth.

Other policy choices that can influence earnings include minimum wage laws, regulations on specific industries, investments in infrastructure and transportation programs, and changes to federal trade policy.

State and local governments can leverage local workforce systems to address their unique challenges and connect job seekers to the skills and credentials they need to reach economic stability. This is especially important as the forces of technological advancement, like the rise of automation, continue to affect the labor market.

The State Economic Monitor is designed to help users track, visualize, and share trends in state-level employment, earnings, housing, and GDP. With 50 states plus the District of Columbia, 10 datasets, and some data going back to 1977, there’s plenty to explore. Highlight cards at the top of the page offer the most interesting recent trends, and downloadable charts allow users to share their personalized findings.

We hope this interactive tool will help residents and community leaders better understand their states, and we look forward to the stories they choose to tell.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Workforce State and local finance
Tags Workforce development Wages and nonwage compensation Unemployment and unemployment insurance Beyond high school: education and training
Policy Centers Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center