Americans have witnessed firsthand the slow U.S. economic recovery over the past several years. Since peaking at 10% in late 2009, the unemployment rate has gradually fallen to 7.6% as of last month. While GDP growth has been uneven, the U.S. economy has been expanding since the third quarter of 2009 after sharply contracting in the previous year.
However, the economic recovery has not benefited all states equally. As of March, seven states still had unemployment rates of 9% to 10%: Nevada, Illinois, Mississippi, California, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. However, two stand out as being in particularly bad shape: Illinois and Mississippi, both of which saw unemployment grow year over year. By contrast, some states are already back to boom-time levels. Most notable among them is North Dakota, where unemployment is just 3.3%.
Illinois saw the biggest year-over-year jump in unemployment in the U.S. last month. At 9.5%, the Illinois unemployment rate is at a level last seen in 2011. Even worse, the labor force shrank last month, suggesting that tens of thousands of people gave up looking for work. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate has risen by nearly a full percentage point since December. Moreover, things may not get better anytime soon; earlier this month, Caterpillar (CAT -2.54%) announced that it would permanently lay off 460 workers in the state due to falling demand for mining equipment.
Many Illinois residents worry that the state is losing its competitiveness compared to neighbors like Indiana and Wisconsin because of higher taxes, a growing public-debt burden, and a severely underfunded pension fund. Caterpillar executives have threatened to move jobs out of Illinois because of rising tax rates. This is a significant threat, because the company is one of Illinois' largest private employers, with about 23,000 workers in the state.
The outlook is not quite so dire in Mississippi, but the state is still falling behind the rest of America. On a seasonally adjusted basis, Mississippi has seen its labor force shrink and its unemployment rate rise since December. The state saw a slight decline in unemployment last month, but only because people left the workforce. On the bright side, the state has added almost 15,000 jobs since March, 2012. However, the tourism-based economy of the Mississippi Gulf Coast is still suffering negative effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Many people remain nervous about the safety of the Gulf of Mexico, hurting hotels, restaurants, and a variety of other businesses.
A big winner
On the other hand, if you live in North Dakota, you probably don't have to worry about finding a job. North Dakota has had the lowest unemployment in the U.S. for some time, and it's no secret why. North Dakota has benefited from a tremendous oil boom in the past few years as advances in hydraulic fracturing have opened up a huge oil-drilling opportunity in the Bakken shale formation. Companies like Whiting Petroleum (WLL) -- the top Bakken driller -- have rapidly expanded production as oil prices have remained near $100. Whiting's production increased 22% year over year in 2012, and the company plans to ramp up investment this year to boost production even further.
The Bakken oil boom has created lots of jobs in the oil sector, but there are plenty of other jobs available. The population boom in western North Dakota has created a tremendous demand for housing and other services. On the other hand, there is a cost to this rapid growth. With so many people flooding into the Bakken oil region so quickly, the cost of living has skyrocketed and could remain elevated until development catches up with population growth.
Foolish bottom line
In Illinois and Mississippi, the recovery from the Great Recession has been tentative, with unemployment recently beginning to trend up again. Illinois in particular seems to be at risk for another slowdown, as businesses may be spooked by the state's budget problems. On the other hand, there are plenty of jobs to be had in North Dakota, as the state's oil boom has created demand for workers in a variety of occupations. However, as the cost of living rises, even relatively well-paid workers there may not be on Easy Street.