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Patchwork Nation: Healthcare Aside, Economy Still Dominant

The headlines may be all about health care reform this week, but throughout the United States, the biggest story continues to be the sputtering economy.

Poll after poll shows that the economy and unemployment are the top issue with voters. That’s for good reason: After more than two years of tough times, things simply don’t look as if they are improving on the ground.

The March edition of Patchwork Nation’s Economic Hardship Index has a score of 33.5, which is exactly where it was in February. In some communities, the number has gotten a little better over the past month. In some, it’s gotten a little worse. But overall, this measure of key economic indicators is high and is unchanged – a testament to the lingering effects of the recession.

Driving the trouble is unemployment, which rose in all 12 of Patchwork Nation’s community types. Another factor, the foreclosure crisis, continues in various degrees across the community types.

The meaning? Despite any hard feelings about healthcare reform, the real story for the 2010 elections has been and continues to be the economy. And it doesn’t appear that good news will be coming soon.

Double-digit unemployment

To understand how troubling the jobs picture is in Patchwork Nation, consider this: Five of the 12 community types have unemployment rates in the double digits.

Leading the way are the “Minority Central” counties, which have large African-American populations. The average unemployment rate for those counties is 13 percent. And just behind them are the small-town “Service Worker Center” counties, which have an unemployment rate of about 12 percent.

Those two community types have had a hard time for the past two years or so. But more surprising in this month’s index are the struggles of the wealthy, mostly suburban “Monied ‘Burbs”: Their unemployment rate is more than 10 percent. Also, the unemployment rate in the “Boom Towns,” which grew and diversified in the early 2000s, is just under 10 percent – at 9.66 percent.

Those numbers are up more than a percentage point since the last index.

These county-based numbers for unemployment lag. For this index, in fact, the jobs statistics come from January. It’s possible that things have improved since then.

But on the whole, this is a dismal set of numbers – and uniformly dismal. Although Patchwork Nation is designed to study the differences between places, economic hardship is spread very evenly in this index, as it has been in recent months.

One big problem in this economic downturn has been that many homeowners are “underwater” in their mortgages – owing more than their homes are worth. Thus, it’s been hard for people to move.

But a look at our data might make one wonder where they would move to anyway. Even agricultural “Tractor Country” counties, which have fared fairly well during the downturn, are seeing their troubles rise. Their unemployment rate is near 7 percent on average.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

At the beginning of this year, President Obama promised that his focus would be on “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

But for now, Mr. Obama will be touring across the US, trying to drum up support for his just-passed healthcare reform bill. It was a monumental piece of legislation with far-reaching impacts. But many Americans don’t fully understand the measure, and its full impact and meaning won’t be known for years.

In the short term, the focus of the majority of Americans will probably be on the economy. These numbers show good reason for that.

And seven months from now, when the midterm elections arrive, the fate of the president’s party may have less to do with people’s feelings about the 2,000-page healthcare bill and more about the numbers that go into the hardship index.

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