The fact that our nation’s unemployment rate is approaching the low rate of 3.5% that was reached just prior to the pandemic should be a cause for celebration. But for a variety of reasons, the official unemployment number is misleading.
The employment situation is not as rosy as it may seem. There is a wide disparity among the states that can be explained by how much economic freedom they allow, including how severely each state shut down its economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider that the U.S. remains 1.6 million jobs short of our February 2020 high, just before the pandemic came to our shores. Since then, our population has grown by 3.8 million people but the labor force shrank by 174,000 workers.
The picture diverges for states. As demonstrated in our 2021 study, the states with the worst job recovery also imposed the harshest COVID-19 measures.
For example, two states with the severest lockdowns — California and New York — are also experiencing two of the worst job recoveries, with unemployment rates at least a full percentage point above the national average of 3.6% based on the newly released March 2022 data.
Conversely, Utah and Nebraska, who are among the states with the least severe lockdown policies, are tied with the lowest unemployment rate of 2.0%, well below the national average.
In measuring how states have rebounded, a better metric than the unemployment rate is the recovery in private employment. Only 16 states have recovered all the private jobs lost due to the shutdowns compared to February 2020. But if we account for each state’s pre-pandemic job growth trajectory, our analysis shows that Montana and Utah stand above the rest for exceeding our forecast of their private employment.
Idaho follows closely behind Montana and Utah, and then Wyoming, North Carolina, Mississippi, South Dakota, Arkansas, Maine, and Georgia to round out the top 10 performing states. Except for Maine and North Carolina, each one has a Republican trifecta (GOP controls both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office).
North Carolina leans Republican, and Maine is the anomaly having a Democrat trifecta.
What about the bottom 10 states in private-sector jobs recovery? They are Hawaii, New York, North Dakota, California, Maryland, Vermont, Minnesota, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Louisiana. Four of those have Democrat trifectas and four lean Democrat. Louisiana, the last state to make the bottom 10, leans Republican.
North Dakota — a Republican trifecta that had one of the least restrictive COVID policies — is a special case due to an unusual economic situation. Its pre-pandemic job growth numbers differed from all other states, and it also relies more heavily on mining and petroleum than any other state. Its petroleum industry went bust in 2014, causing private employment to peak in December 2014 that finally bottomed out in January 2017. Since then, its private job growth has been slow, less than 1% per year.
President Biden’s anti-fossil fuels executive orders, including the cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, have only made matters worse for North Dakota.
Putting this outlier aside, what accounts for this dramatic difference in recoveries between red and blue states? As already indicated, Republican governors were less severe with their lockdown policies.
For another, all Republican governors (with the exception of Louisiana) ended supplemental unemployment payments before they were set to expire last September. These payments contributed to some people receiving more than they would have had they been working. In fact, one study finds that those states that didn’t end these payments early contributed to 3 million fewer people in the labor force.
Underlying the difference is likely the extent of economic freedom in each state. Using the Economic Freedom of North America 2021 report published by the Fraser Institute, which is based on 2019 data, the top 17 states allowing for the most economic freedom either lean Republican or have Republican trifectas. In fact, 14 of them are the trifectas.
Eight of the bottom 10 have Democrat trifectas, with New York leading the pack, followed by California. The other two in the bottom 10 include Vermont that leans Democrat and West Virginia with a Republican trifecta.
The best path to prosperity is a job. Work brings dignity, hope, and purpose to people by allowing them to earn a living, gain skills, and build social capital that endures. Advancing policies that connect people with work, along with reducing barriers for new jobs and opportunities, should be our goal, rather than making a government the first resort for help that disconnects people from what work brings.
The red states are showing the way to achieve this sound policy. Other states should follow while things at the federal level look bleak. But as our founders desired, the system of federalism that breeds a laboratory of competition helps shed light on what works best to let people prosper.