U.S. economic recovery remains uneven, fragile across counties

January 15, 2014

U.S. economic growth continued last year for the 3,069 county economies, but the recovery remained uneven and fragile, according to an analysis of four economic performance indicators by the National Association of Counties (NACo). As a result of the fragile and uneven recovery, many counties are continuing to struggle with their budgets, meet financial obligations and provide essential public services.

NACo’s new study, County Tracker 2013: On the Path to Recovery assesses the performance of the nation’s county economies by studying annual changes in four indicators – economic output (GDP), employment, the unemployment rate and home prices. The report also contains case studies to illustrate how specific county economies fared during the recession and recovery. The counties profiled include, Tarrant County, Texas (population 1.9 million), Los Angeles County, Calif. (10 million), Linn County, Iowa (215,000) and Mountrail County, N.D. (9,000).

The economic indicators analyzed by NACo suggest that 2013 was a year of growth, but the recovery remained fragile. By 2013, the economic output (GDP) in about half of all county economies recovered or had no declines over the last decade. Home prices were in the same situation. But this is only part of the story. Jobs recovered in one quarter of county economies and in only 54 county economies unemployment is back to pre-recession levels. The low unemployment recovery rates show the fragility of the recovery.
The recovery has been also uneven. All counties, large, mid-sized or small, have been affected by the recession but the patterns of recovery vary significantly.
Large county economies were at the core of the recession and the recovery. Only 4 percent of the nation’s large county economies – in counties with more than 500,000 residents – delivered around 58 percent of the county economies’ output (GDP) growth and a similar share of the added jobs over the recovery. Large county economies in the South such as in Tarrant County, Texas bounced back quickly.

Employment in medium-size county economies was more stable during the recession, but had a mixed record in 2013. About half of the medium-sized county economies – in counties with populations between 50,000 and 500,000 residents – had shorter and/or shallower job recessions than the national average.
The recovery in small county economies covered the entire scale of potential outcomes. Twenty-seven small county economies – in counties with fewer than 50,000 residents – had no recession or fully recovered across all four indicators by 2013. The housing market downturn was mild in small county economies, with more than half not going through home price declines or already returned to pre-recession home price levels by 2013.

This fragile and uneven recovery across county economies adds to the challenges that counties face currently. Most counties survived through the recession because of their fiscally prudent approaches.

Counties with fast growing economies, such as Mountrail County, N.D. have a hard time to keep up with the necessary service delivery.

Other counties, with challenged economies are finding new ways to maintain services and prepare their counties for the future.

For economic performance data for each of the 3,069 county economies and comparisons across county population groups, please see the County Tracker interactive at www.naco.org/countytracker.

Topic Tags: County Connections, NACo

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