Low rate, high rate, red state, blue state

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Unemployment’s story is simple: low rate, high rate, red state, blue state. The relationship between unemployment levels and states’ partisan tilt is unmistakable. The only question is whether this linkage goes beyond the recent COVID-19 lockdown disparity to something deeper. If so, today’s migrating businesses could be followed by their workers. 

Of all the economic indicators, unemployment has proved the “stickiest.” Despite the economy surpassing its pre-COVID-19 levels in the first quarter, the current unemployment rate — 6.1 percent — remains well above its 3.5 percent pre-COVID-19 rate. When today’s lower labor force participation rate is factored in, today’s unemployment rate is higher still. 

Some have attributed its stubborn highness to additional federal unemployment payments, which have been in place since early in the pandemic. Their belief is that these benefits are so high that, with all things considered, returning to work is unattractive. Acting on this theory, 23 states have announced that they will terminate these enhanced benefits. With the exception of New Hampshire and Arizona, all of these states are red (voted Republican in 2020’s presidential election). New Hampshire has a Republican governor. 

This partisan split is a hallmark of America’s current unemployment predicament. It is impossible to miss and becomes more pronounced in current unemployment’s examination.

There are 20 states (and the District of Columbia) with unemployment levels above today’s national 6.1 percent average. Only four (Arkansa, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) are red states, and they are far from the top. There are just six states with unemployment at 8 percent or higher, all are blue. 

Of the 31 states (and the District of Columbia) with unemployment rates below the 6.1 percent national average, 21 are red and just 10 are blue. Of the top 10 states with the lowest unemployment, eight are red. Of the top 20, 16 are red.

Such a pronounced partisan differentiation raises the question whether it extends to the COVID-19 lockdowns that dominated 2020. Lockdowns are worthy of examination in order to determine their role in America’s economic shock. 

Like unemployment, the lockdowns’ partisan differentiation is immediately obvious. Of the top 20 states with the lowest COVID-19 restrictions, 18 are red states — only Wisconsin and Georgia voted Democratic in 2020’s presidential election. Of the top 20 states (and the District of Columbia) with the highest COVID-19 restrictions, all 20 are blue states.  

This partisan split also extends to the initial lockdowns. Today’s states with the lowest COVID-19 restrictions averaged just 22.3 days of initial lockdowns. Those with the highest COVID-19 restrictions averaged 85.2 days of initial lockdowns. 

In short, blue states implemented lock downs sooner and longer and still have had higher COVID-19 restrictions than red states. And in general, blue states also have markedly higher unemployment than red states. That unemployment rates, lockdowns and partisan state government differences are linked is difficult to deny.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000. 

Tags coronavirus lockdowns coronavirus restrictions democratic states mask mandates Republican states state reopenings Unemployment

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