And Now, Some Good Economic News

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Over the last four years, scanning the nation's business headlines has become something best done with a pack of Tums at the ready. From housing to unemployment, looking at the numbers has become a test of intestinal fortitude.

But the last few days have brought some bright spots. The stock market has risen recently as Europe looks to be getting its financial house in order. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department reported October economic growth had exceeded expectations. And around the country, Patchwork Nation finds that since June unemployment is falling in all of the 12 types of county that we examine.

In September, some of our county types saw the lowest unemployment rate they have seen for months (county unemployment figures are collected differently than national numbers and lag by a month). And even some of the hardest-hit locales saw a much better fall than they would have imagined this summer.

The news couldn't have come at a better time for retailers as the holiday shopping season nears. Plus, the economy looks to be the issue on everyone's mind in the coming election year.

Jobs in the Right Places

As Patchwork Nation has noted often, not all of the 12 county types we follow are equal in terms of measuring economic health. The Monied Burb counties -- wealthier on average than most places -- play a critical role because their spending power can drive the consumer economy, which makes the larger U.S. economy go.

And the September unemployment figures show that the unemployment rate in those places is down near 8 percent. That's hardly cause for celebration, but it is down from 8.5 percent in June, a good-sized improvement.

And beyond the Burbs, there is good news in different kinds of communities all around the country. Look for instance at Lincoln County in Oregon, a Service Worker Center county that Patchwork Nation has visited several times in the past four years. In April, the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent there. It is now down to 9.0 -- not great, but a bit of relief for a county that has taken some hard hits.

And on the whole, these September numbers for nearly all 12 county types look as good as or better than the figures from April, which was the last "good news" month before the summer swoon that turned people so pessimistic about the economy.

Unemployment by Community Type

Community Type April June September
Monied 'Burbs 8.03 8.5 8.03
Minority Central 10.06 11 10.28
Evangelical Epicenters 8.91 9.7 9.21
Tractor Country 6.24 6 5.4
Campus and Careers 7.47 8.1 7.52
Immigration Nation 10.81 11.3 10.17
Industrial Metropolis 9.47 10.3 9.88
Boom Towns 8.59 9.2 8.67
Service Center 8.7 8.9 8.33
Empty Nests 8.81 9.1 8.56
Military Bastions 8.01 8.8 8.47
Mormon Outposts 7.25 7.8 6.73

One big question out of the upbeat consumer spending numbers of Tuesday was where was the money coming from? Were people simply raiding their savings to buy things they had put off purchasing? These numbers suggest a combination of factors were taking people back to the mall. Pent up need together with an improving unemployment picture for themselves and their surrounding community may have brought a sunnier outlook.

The next months and the size and shape of spending around the holiday season will help give a real answer to whether these numbers mark a turnaround or just another short uptick.

Perilous Times as 2012 Nears

In the past four years, it's become clear that a good month or two doesn't equal a turnaround. There have been more than a few false starts on the road to recovery and currently there are bigger outside concerns hanging over the U.S. economy -- like Washington's handling of the debt and deficit.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans on the so-called supercommittee are struggling to find a compromise on a way to trim $1.4 trillion from federal deficits over the next 10 years. They are down to less than a week to get the job done with little news of progress.

Failure to reach a compromise would trigger a set of across-the-board spending cuts that would likely damage the U.S. economy and upset investors on Wall Street. It would also almost certainly short-circuit any recovery.

And even if September does mark the beginning of a true economic recovery, what it would mean for next year's presidential race is hardly clear. Would voters respond to the improving picture with relief and approval for incumbents, like President Barack Obama, or would they wonder why the pain has lasted so long?

Look at the map below of unemployment from April 2008 and you will notice lighter shades of red in most places.

Is that picture of the United States ancient history to most Americans or a memory of how things should be?

For the moment though, these numbers represent something important that economic watchers haven't had in a while: hope. And whether you are a sitting president or simply someone collecting unemployment insurance waiting for things to get better, it is a welcome sight.