Washington's rural counties have slowly recovered from high unemployment. But even though many are in driving distance of Seattle's boom, they still face severe obstacles.

Share story

Although Seattle and King County have enjoyed what economists would consider full employment for some time, much of rural Washington faced a very grim march out of the Great Recession.

This has eased considerably this year. In November all of the state’s counties have unemployment rates in the single-digits. For example, Pacific County, known for its oyster harvest, showed 8.4 percent unemployment last month. That’s painful by metro standards but a significant improvement over the 10.4 percent a year earlier and 13.9 percent in November 2010.

Pacific and Ferry are the only two of Washington’s 39 counties to face jobless rates of 8.1 percent or higher. Another 18 were at 6.1 percent or higher. By contrast in November, King County stood at 4.6 percent, Snohomish at 5 percent and Pierce at 5.7 percent. Spokane County was 5.5 percent. Tiny Asotin County in far southeast Washington posted the state’s lowest, 4 percent.

Rural areas in America have been suffering for years. In the West, jobs have disappeared as extraction industries have diminished, leaving agribusiness, tourism or colleges as major employers for the lucky few.

But is Washington’s rural labor force really healing — or have many workers fallen off the radar as “discouraged,” retired early or gone on disability?

Washington’s employment to population ratio (EPOP) was 59.9 in November, slightly better than the national average of 59.3. In January  2000 Washington’s stood at 65.9, more than 1 percentage point above the national level. Back then the United States had one of the highest EPOPs; now it trails most advanced nations.

Also, more than 1 million Washingtonians receive SNAP benefits (“food stamps). At the household level of SNAP recipients, at least one person is working. Wages are especially low in rural counties. It’s difficult to drill down to the most recent data at the county level, although the New York Times did so in 2009. But a report earlier this year made it clear that rural congressional districts had large numbers of people depending on this program and its small benefits (about $117 per individual a month).

So the Two Washingtons persist, even if the weaker part is doing better at least on paper.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Why we love Santa

He didn’t outsource reindeer

Or move the elves South