Here's Why Millions of Americans Feel Like the Recession Never Ended
Life + Money

Here's Why Millions of Americans Feel Like the Recession Never Ended

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Roughly six years after the current economic expansion began in 2009, 93 percent of counties in the U.S. are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, according to a new study from the National Association of Counties.  

The report highlights how bumpy the recovery has been, despite the nation as a whole regaining all of the jobs lost. “Since 2009, the recovery has created an uneven geography of opportunity, with some county economies witnessing rising wages and productivity, while others saw wages failing to keep pace with productivity gains,” the report reads.

Related: The 10 Cities Still Suffering Most from the Great Recession

Just 214 county economies, or 7 percent of the 3,069 counties studied, were found to have bounced back to their pre-recession peak by the end of 2015, based on four economic indicators: annual job numbers, the unemployment rate, economic output and home prices. (There are 3,142 counties in the U.S.; data was not collected on counties that did not have county governments.)

Of the counties studied, 16 percent haven’t recovered on any indicators; 32 percent have recovered on one indicator; 30 percent on two indicators; and 16 percent have recovered on three indicators.

The population in the counties that have fully recovered is 28.9 million, or 9.4 percent of the U.S. total. About 278.7 million Americans live in counties that still have yet to fully recover from the recession. (The populations in the 73 counties without county governments is left out of these numbers.)

One of the study’s researchers, Dr. Emilia Istrate, emphasizes that the 16 percent of county economies that haven’t recovered on any economic indicators aren’t concentrated in one area, but instead are spread across the nation. “This uneven recovery tells us why everyday Americans don’t feel the national numbers. Americans don’t feel the national numbers because they don’t feel it in their pocket books,” Istrate says. 

Additionally, the study found that wage increases have been uneven across the country. While nearly half of the counties experienced upticks in both productivity and real wages between 2009 and 2014, just over a quarter of counties, most of which are in Western states, saw real wages decline while productivity increased. Total wages in these counties grew at a slower pace than jobs, or in some cases moved lower. This trend popped up in more than one-third of large county (more than 500,000 residents) economies.

One factor behind the uneven recovery has been the enormous drop in oil and gas prices. More than half of counties that depend on oil and gas production experienced declines in economic output in 2015. These counties are mostly found in the middle of the country. At the same time, counties on the West Coast and in the Northeast saw impressive economic growth of more than 4 percent last year.

Istrate points out that while the nation’s overall economic numbers might be moving in a positive direction, “let’s keep in mind that Americans don’t live in the abstract, macro-economic level. They live in these counties where they feel these economies,” Istrate says.

Related: Why We Might Be Headed for a Recession in 2016

While the study’s findings were sobering, one positive note is that the recovery has picked up pace. The number of counties that have recovered to pre-recession levels is almost three times more than the number reported in 2014. Last year, Texas boasted 72 recovered counties, the highest number of any state, followed by Nebraska, Minnesota, Kentucky, North Dakota, Montana and Kansas.

The two economic indicators that saw the most improvement were unemployment rates and home prices. Last year, 462 counties saw their unemployment rates fall to pre-recession levels; in total, a quarter of counties have reached pre-recession unemployment lows. In addition, nearly two-thirds of counties were back to pre-recession home prices last year, after adding 448 more counties to the list in 2015.