Monday, December 14, 2009

Resilience and the Geography of Unemployment

In light of the discussion of resilience and its relation to policy, it is interesting to consider the current unemployment situation. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 31 million people currently unemployed -- that's including those involuntarily working parttime and those who want a job, but have given up on trying to find one. In the face of the worst economic upheaval since the Great Depression, millions of Americans are hurting. "The Decline: The Geography of a Recession," as created by labor writer LaToya Egwuekwe, serves as a vivid representation of just how much. Watch the deteriorating transformation of the U.S. economy from January 2007 -- approximately one year before the start of the recession -- to the most recent unemployment data available today. Original link:

What, from a resilience point of view, does the map show?
Is it, as it appears to be, a depiction of a spreading shock to the system? Or is unemployment, as the economists say, a lagging indicator? In which case we are observing not the shock, but something more akin to an aftershock. In either case, the map shows that the consequences are not uniform. But, in contrast to the previous discussion about appropriate policy, discussions about how to cope with the problem are largely at the national level rather than local or regional.


  1. The spatial/temporal video of unemployment is a phenomenal revelation. Incredible. It suggests several factors: (a) that there has been a national scale to the problem (b) there is clearly a local scale, but the local scale grows outward like a cancer; the two effects may feed on one another. This suggests that the problem needs to be multiscaled. However, subsidies should enable local innovation to spur recovery in an autonomous manner.

  2. The graph shows a strong regional scenario: unemployment is worst on the coasts, spreading inland from the Eastern shore to the MIssissippi and Great Lakes region (the old Rust Belt). There is almost no increase in unemployment west of the MIssissippi through the Plains and Rocky Mountain states. You have to ask if the problem is regional or is it based on industry/sector? Is the unemployment on the coasts related to the collapse of the real estate market? You could run a similar graph of foreclosures and see if they line up. Is the Plains/RM region doing well because of agriculture? mining? oil/gas? You could run a similar graph on each industry/sector and see if it follows the same regional pattern.

  3. I agree entirely, the interesting point is the clear involvement of dynamics on multiple scales. But, from a policy point of view -- largely due to the fact that states typically have balanced budget legislation and counties/municipalities tend to have relatively little ability to raise cash -- unemployment policy is tackled primarily at the national level. Thus, for example, a large portion of the Obama stimulus was money directed to states so that they could retain teachers, police, fire-persons, and other state/local government employees that otherwise would have been laid off so the states could balance their budgets.