Unemployment decreased in 96 of North Carolina’s 100 counties in December, according to the latest release from the state’s Department of Commerce. Ninety-two counties also saw a decrease in unemployment rates in November’s county-level jobs report. These local rates are not seasonally adjusted and are subject to large seasonal patterns. 

The state and national rates show a slowdown in recovery from the pandemic and lockdown-induced economic downturn. Since July, North Carolina’s state unemployment rate has steadily climbed, plateauing at 3.9% in the last two months. 

According to the county-level release, “When compared to the same month last year, not seasonally adjusted unemployment rates increased in 47 counties, decreased in 30, and remained unchanged in 23. Five of the state’s metro areas experienced rate increases over the year, four decreased, and six remained unchanged.” This mixed data doesn’t appear to show significant progress or regression and requires additional analysis. 

Comparing today’s unemployment data to pre-pandemic data appears to show things have improved, with unemployment rates dropping:  

Moreover, 14 of the state’s 15 metro areas (Rocky Mount is the exception) have lower unemployment today than they did before the pandemic.

Unemployment data, however, doesn’t show the whole picture. 

In every metro area except Raleigh, Charlotte, and Durham, the labor force has shrunk from pre-pandemic levels. Statewide, the labor force has decreased. Using statewide data from December, if the labor force participation were at pre-pandemic levels, our state would have 85,040 more people in the labor force.

This means that as people stop looking for work, they are no longer counted in the unemployment rate, making the economic data look better than it is. 

This trend is not unique to North Carolina. But it is important as a strong labor force is crucial to any economic recovery. And people’s attachment to the job market is important for more than a paycheck. Jobs also bring stability and well-being. 

Though there are many reasons for slowing labor force participation, reducing the dramatically extended benefits of unemployment would certainly encourage a return to work.