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by Jason Gray, Senior Fellow for Research & Policy and Alfred Garshong, Research/GIS Associate

Have you noticed that the word “rural” shows up in the news more these days? Hmmmmm, wonder why.

Here in North Carolina, a major reason is the great divergence in economic conditions that have become obvious since the Great Recession.

But how can we best measure this divergence?

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) is a good place to start.

The QCEW is a measure commonly used by government and academic researchers and policy analysts. We use it here as it has both employment and wage data. But all data has limitations, and a critical one of the QCEW is that it excludes self-employment, which is important in rural communities.

But with that in mind, it is still a useful series to consider.

We graphically show data in two ways: First, a graph that has counties clustered by the county typology the Rural Center uses that shows change in both private sector employment and taxable wages; and second, the same data shown as maps.

The following table shows the divergence.

Summary by Rural Center County Typology

Typology Percentage Change in Employment Percentage Change in Taxable Wages (in real 2016 dollars)
80 Rural Counties -6% -3%
14 Regional City/Suburban Counties 3% 6%
6 Urban Counties 11% 15%

(Want to dig deeper? Click here.)

The three percent decline in taxable wages in the rural counties is $141 million. But that’s just the average for 80 rural counties. Some counties did well, but 47 rural counties had an aggregate decline of $287 million in taxable wages – that is a heck of a lot of lost wages. Contrast that to $1.1 billion in taxable wage growth in six urban counties, and a $254 million increase in 14 regional city/suburban counties and the divergence becomes stark.

The divergence affects us all, but affirming the value that we are one North Carolina compels us to look for strategies and solutions that reflect our shared values and a shared fate. For example, we have seen good growth in manufacturing since 2011, and high skill/high pay positions are sometimes hard to fill.

How can we advance workforce strategies to fill these positions, and grow even more higher skill/wage positions?

We can do better. We can be better. It is a good theme to carry into the New Year.