The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles unemployment rates at the county level, which allows a glimpse of how local labor markets are performing. The interactive map of the Southeast below depicts the progress across the region since the second quarter of 2009, which the National Bureau of Economic Research defines as the end of the most recent recession.

Areas in southern Louisiana stand out as having had low unemployment even in 2009, thanks in large part to the strength of the energy sector and continued post-Katrina development. Fast-forward to 2014, and we also see considerable improvement in other areas. But some parts of the Southeast are still struggling with high unemployment.

Although the map shows improvement since the end of the recession, it doesn’t show whether we are back to normal, or even what “normal” looks like. Are local labor markets as strong as they were before the recession? Drilling down a bit more, we separated counties into two categories: those defined as a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) by the U.S. Census Bureau, and those not defined as an MSA. Those counties within an MSA are typically more urban and densely populated, and non-MSA counties tend to be more rural and less populated. In the chart below, we have calculated the unemployment rate for both MSA and non-MSA counties. The size of the bubble represents the size of the labor force, and the solid lines show the national average unemployment rate in each of the two time periods.

In 2007, non-MSA counties in Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi had unemployment rates above the 2007 average, whereas all but Mississippi had MSA unemployment rates below the national average. In 2014, unemployment in non-MSA counties in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi was above the national average, and all but Georgia had MSA unemployment below the national average. So, above-average unemployment is generally more prevalent in non-MSAs than in MSAs, seemingly a persistent problem. (Florida and Louisiana are the two exceptions in the region, with average or below-average MSA and non-MSA unemployment rates before and after the recession.)

Another way to gauge labor market strength is to measure job growth. Generally speaking, unemployment and job growth move in opposite directions, although declines in labor force participation can also cause the unemployment rate to decline even without strong job growth. In the chart below, to view how MSA and non-MSA counties fared across states, we have plotted year-over-year employment growth in 2007 (prior to the recession) against growth for the year ending with the first quarter of 2014. Once again, the size of the bubble represents the size of the labor force in 2014. We see that across the region, employment growth was weakest among non-MSA counties in both periods, but employment growth was generally stronger among MSA counties in both periods (although only MSA counties in Florida and Louisiana experienced above average employment growth in 2007 and 2014).

The unemployment map demonstrates that labor market conditions have improved in most parts of the Southeast since the end of the recession. However, many smaller rural communities continue to struggle with higher levels of unemployment and weaker employment growth than their big-city neighbors.

Photo of John RobertsonBy John Robertson, a vice president and senior economist, and

Photo of Whitney MancusoWhitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst, both of the Atlanta Fed's research department