(Not) Leaving Las Vegas: When Unemployment Happens in Vegas the Jobless Stay in Vegas

Since February 2009 the unemployment rate in Las Vegas has averaged 13.1% and never dropped below 10.1%; it now stands at 11.5%.  Jobless workers have not left the metro area despite the persistently high unemployment rate and lack of job growth since the recession ended.  This stunning lack of out-migration, Las Vegas’ labor force of about 980,000 workers declined by less than 200 people in the past four years, is puzzling because there are better job prospects for the unemployed and underemployed in other parts of the western U.S. 

Every other state has a healthier labor market than Nevada and every major metropolitan area has a lower unemployment rate than Las Vegas.  The unemployment rate in North Dakota is 3.1% and has not been above 4.2% since February 2009.  Unemployment rates in Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming are 3.8%, 4.5%, 5.2% and 5.2% respectively.  The combined labor force in these states is more than 3.5 times larger than Las Vegas, and could easily absorb jobless workers leaving Las Vegas.  The labor forces in these relatively healthy states have grown by an average of less than 1.4% over the past four years.  In other words their labor markets are expanding at a steady but unspectacular rate.

The last four years stand in stark contrast to Las Vegas’ recent history.  Between 2004 and 2008 the Las Vegas labor force grew by 16.8%.  Between 2000 and 2004, a time of relatively slow economic growth for the U.S. overall, its labor force grew by 14.1%.   This means that about one-quarter of the Las Vegas labor force arrived between 2000 and 2008.  These recent arrivals came to a city in the midst of a real estate boom but have persevered through four years of high unemployment and plunging real estate values.

A comparison of Las Vegas and cities on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that also experienced a real estate boom and bust in the past decade is informative.  Between 2004 and 2008 the labor force grew by 13.4% in Fort Myers-Cape Coral, Florida and by 12.7% in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  Since then their labor forces decreased by 1.3% and 4.2% respectively.  If the labor force in Las Vegas contracted at the same rate as it did in Fort Myers or Myrtle Beach, because unemployed workers left the city to find employment elsewhere, the Las Vegas unemployment rate would be 1.3 to 3.9 percentage points lower.

Labor forces have declined in many cities across the U.S., even those that did not experience a real estate boom and bust, but not in Las Vegas.  Much like the gambler who stays at the blackjack table believing his luck will change with the next shoe the people who came to Vegas for economic opportunities are hanging on and hoping that 2013 will be different.

What Happened in Vegas? Its Not Better Off Than Four Years Ago

The question “are you better off than four years ago?”, first asked by Ronald Reagan in his campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980, has a different answer for households in different parts of the country, and for workers who differ with respect to their occupation, age, education, race, gender and work experience.  The average answer to this question belies substantial inequality in changes in economic fortunes over the past four years.  There have been economic success stories even during the depths of the deepest recession since the Great Depression.  Some small businesses and start-ups have flourished.  The stock market and corporate profits have rebounded well in the past four years.  Many individuals have found work, moved from part-time to full-time work, received a promotion, or a substantial increase in their rate of pay.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is unlikely to be a group of workers more adversely affected by the recession and weak recovery than construction workers in areas where the real estate bubble burst.  Consider building construction workers in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Four years ago there were 17,500 workers employed in building construction.  Today there are only 5,100 meaning that employment has fallen by 71% over four years.

The Case-Shiller price index for residential housing in Las Vegas has fallen by 41% over the past four years.  This means that many of the unemployed and underemployed construction workers are underwater in their homes.  Moreover, given the glut of housing, the employment prospects for construction workers in Las Vegas is likely to remain weak for years to come.

What happened in Vegas, unfortunately, isn’t confined to Vegas.  There are a number of other cities and areas, from Riverside County, California to south Florida, that are casualties of the crash in real estate markets.  Many residents of these areas lost equity in their homes.  Others lost their jobs and have been underemployed for years.  Many small businesses, especially those dependent on real estate and construction, have failed.  So whenever pundits and journalists attempt to determine whether the typical American is better off than they were four years ago, remember that there are 300 million different answers to that question.  In some parts of the country the answer is clearly no, for far too many Americans.

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