Unemployment down: which states are doing better than others

Unemployment rates fell in 45 states in November, but the strength of the job market varies widely by region, according to US data. Local resources and housing markets are among the reasons.

Greg DeRuiter/Lansing State Journal/AP
This Nov 2012 photo shows a veteran job and resource fair at the Michigan National Guard Armory in Lansing, Mich.

Unemployment fell in 45 states in November, but that doesn't mean the job market is uniformly strong.

The newly released data from the Labor Department reveal stark differences by state and region: Some are still mired in deep trouble, while others are improving rapidly or enjoy "full employment" conditions.

Some overall patterns:

• The Plains states, rich in energy and agriculture and relatively light on population, have the strongest job conditions. The unemployment rate is just 3.7 percent in Nebraska, for instance, and still falling. That's close enough to zero that the state can be considered at full employment (given that any labor market tends to have some people in transition at any given moment). Joblessness in a number of neighboring states is in the 5 percent range.

• Many housing bust states are improving along with the market for real estate. The biggest centers of the housing collapse were "sand" states: California, Arizona, Nevada, Florida. All still have unemployment rates above the national average, but joblessness has been falling steadily this year. In fact, Arizona and Florida are at 7.8 and 8.1 percent, respectively, not far above the nationwide rate of 7.7 percent. California stands at 9.8 percent, and Nevada at a nation-leading 10.8 percent.

• The Northeast has the biggest momentum problem. Although the unemployment rate improved in these states last month, compared with October, the picture has actually darkened when measured over a six-month span. New Jersey, plus all six New England states except Rhode Island, have seen the jobless rate rise since May. New York, for its part, has been essentially flat over the past 12 months.

Why? One reason may be a tepid housing market. Home prices in the region have been falling in five of these eight states over the past year, and are nearly flat in two others (with Vermont showing a 3 percent price gain), according to Federal Housing Finance Agency data.

The woes of New Jersey and Connecticut, at least in these statistical comparisons, don't have to do with Hurricane Sandy. The official unemployment numbers in those states improved a bit between September and November (with the storm striking in late October). In part, that's because of people who were recently counted by the Labor Department as not in the labor force, for weather-related reasons.

• Elsewhere, two Midwestern states, Illinois and Michigan, deserve mention as populous places where the jobless rate is high and stubborn. Unemployment is higher in these states than it was six months ago.

By contrast, nearby Indiana and Ohio have seen their job markets improving, similar to patterns seen in much of the West and South.

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