2012 Will Be About Jobs! What Does That Mean?

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The next presidential election may be some 18 months off, but most everyone agrees the race will be fought around the economy and, more specifically, jobs.

The unemployment rate remains locked stubbornly above 9 percent. And last week’s jobless numbers only stoked concerns that any recovery seen in some figures is stalled on the economic issue that weighs heaviest on most minds: Will I have a job tomorrow?

The 2012 conversation has turned sharply to the question of jobs. President Obama has renewed his jobs focus and that comes after a story in the New York Times pointed out how no president since FDR had won reelection with an unemployment rate of over 7.2 percent – an almost-certainty for 2012.

But those speeches and numbers miss the point. There are many unemployment rates in America. There are whole swaths of the country where “unemployment” is barely a problem at all and there are others where “the recovery” is a rumor.

In Patchwork Nation, we use county demographics to look at how 12 different types of places have been affected, and the unemployment story is varied and complicated in those county types. And the way the numbers move in those county types will have a lot more impact on 2012 than any national figure.

It’s All Local

The national unemployment number is not meaningless. It is a useful shorthand measure for understanding where the nation as a whole is going, but as we have noted in more in-depth reportage, it is ultimately just an abstraction. No one lives in the world of the national average. People live in individual places with individual problems.

The unemployment rate in the counties immediately around Washington D.C., which fall in the type we call the Monied Burbs, ranges from 4 percent in Arlington to 6.7 percent in Prince George’s. See the map below for April numbers (the latest available at this level):

Those numbers are remarkably low and, of course, that has a lot to do with those counties being located near the nation’s capital where government jobs are plentiful. But the Monied Burbs in general have weathered the recession fairly well.

The unemployment rate in those places was just above 8 percent in April. That was down from 8.9 percent in April 2010 and down also from 8.6 percent in 2010.

Of course, 8 percent is not historically good news. Politicians don’t usually win office by promising 8 percent unemployment. But the number is down from where it has been and below the national average. That’s significant for a few reasons.

First, the relative feeling in those places is “things are improving.”

Second, in the context of 2012, the Burbs are full of swing voters that are less committed to voting for either party. They barely went for Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004, but they went for President Obama by more than 10 percentage points in 2008 when the financial crisis hit.

And the drop in unemployment there could leave voters feeling less angry and more willing to back the president again.

Something Bigger Happening

That’s just the Burbs though.

The latest unemployment figures show joblessness is up in other types of county. In Latino-heavy Immigration Nation unemployment is 10.8 percent. In the aging Emptying Nest counties it is 8.8 percent. And in both those county types unemployment is not only up compared to April of 2010, but also compared to April 2009.

Things feel like they are getting worse there.

In the Boom Town counties that experienced much of the housing boom – and later the bust – the unemployment rate is flat at 8.6 percent compared to last year. But it is up from 2009, when it was 8.1 percent. On one recent trip to Eagle County, a Boom Town in Colorado, we found resignation was the dominant attitude toward the economy.

And the small town Service Worker Center counties, where unemployment was 8.7 percent in April, probably feel much better than they did in April of 2010, when unemployment was over 10 percent. But that is still a percentage point higher than 2009, when the rate was only 7.7 percent.

The point is economic pain is never spread evenly across the country and neither are economic recoveries. But that was especially true of this recession.

As we have noted often at Patchwork Nation, the current economic troubles for many places appear to be less about “the recession” than the last stages of an economic restructuring. Small manufacturing has taken a many hits in recent years and that has especially hurt small communities that lived and died with the health of the local factory.

At the same time, one of the lowest unemployment rates in these April 2011 figures comes from the collegiate Campus and Careers counties, many of which have educated populations that are better equipped to handle the new education/skill based economy.

And when you look at all of that through the 2012 prism, it really changes the impact of the unemployment numbers.

Many of the places that are struggling – the Service Worker Centers, Emptying Nests and socially conservative Evangelical Epicenters – tend to vote Republican. The places that seem to be doing better – the Monied Burbs, Campus and Careers and big city Industrial Metropolis counties – tend to vote Democratic.

What that will actually mean for enthusiasm, turnout and, ultimately, votes is far from clear.

There are myriad other factors that can’t be weighed in the summer of 2011 from the stumbling housing market to gas prices to some other issue not even on our radar. And there are the millions of “underemployed” in America – those who have work but may not be happy with the jobs they have. We’ll try to look at them more closely in the coming weeks.

What it does mean is even if you believe the 2012 election will be “about jobs,” that issue holds many subtleties.