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Wisconsin Counties See Improving Unemployment Rates, Many Close To Pre-Pandemic Levels

Economists Say Recovery Might Be Slower In Places Hit Hardest By Job Losses

unemployment, job fair, 2012, Pittsburgh
In this Tuesday, July 10, 2012 photo, people walk by the recruiters at a jobs fair in the Pittsburgh suburb of Green Tree, Pa. AP Photo

The jobless rate improved in all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties in September, but some areas of the state still have a ways to go before reaching their pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released Wednesday by the state Department of Workforce Development.

In September, a majority of counties were relatively close to their Sept. 2019 levels of unemployment, but several had unemployment rates that were still significantly worse. Forest, Jackson, Menominee, Milwaukee and Iron counties are the five that are still the furthest away from pre-pandemic levels of unemployment.

James Murray, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said the recovery will be slower in places that saw very high levels of unemployment throughout the downturn because of a concept in economics known as the “multiplier effect.”

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“Some people who may have been laid off in the services sector, they don’t have as much income as they used to have or they have no income and they cut their spending everywhere,” Murray said. “And when a big chunk of the community cuts their spending, then the rest of the community has lower income. They’re not spending their money locally or nationally. The community’s problems become everybody’s problems as everybody’s experiencing lower income, the businesses in town are experiencing lower income, and then they need to lay people off.”

Milwaukee County, the largest county in the state by population, had a 7.3 percent unemployment rate in September. This is still 3.5 percentage points off from its Sept. 2019 rate of 3.8 percent.

By comparison, Dane County, the second-most populous county, has recovered much quicker. Dane County’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.8 percent in September, a little more than 1.5 percentage points from its Sept. 2019 rate of 2.2 percent.

Kundan Kishor, an economics professor at the UW-Milwaukee, noted that Milwaukee County averages higher levels of unemployment than Dane County as it is. He added that some of the differences can be explained by the kinds of jobs both cities have and the different levels of education among the workforce.

Dane County has a higher number of both construction and government jobs than Milwaukee County, both of which are sectors that to date haven’t seen the level of layoffs that others have, Kishor said.

“If you take the argument that (the pandemic) affects … the lower-skilled workers much more than the high-skilled laborers then Madison has been affected (a) little bit less,” Kishor said.

Rusk, Taylor, Clark, Richland and Price were the counties in the state that were the closest to their pre-pandemic levels of unemployment.

Kewaunee County was the only county in the state to have a better unemployment rate this September than September 2019. Last month, it recorded a 2.6 percent unemployment rate, slightly beating its 2.8 percent unemployment rate from last year.