By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com
updated 6/29/2010 11:33:25 AM ET 2010-06-29T15:33:25

Despite signs that the national economy is getting back on its feet, Americans who lost their jobs to the recession are having a harder time getting back on theirs.

Major Market Indices

Of the 384 metro areas tracked by msnbc.com’s Adversity Index, only two are in full-blown economic expansion, according to the latest figures from Moody's Analytics. Until more regions join them, expect local and regional jobless rates to remain stubbornly high.

Based on the latest data from April, two-thirds of those metro areas have now moved into “recovery mode,” which means their economies and job markets have hit bottom and are on the way back. The other one-third are in a “moderating recession,” which means the contraction is slowing, but things are still getting worse.  That reflects the gradual improvement in the national economy since December 2009, when more than half the metro areas were still in the “moderating recession” category.

Improvements in job markets around the country have been more difficult to find.

There have been some hopeful signs of improvement in the latest government jobs data. Though private sector hiring was much slower than expected in May, employers boosted the number of hours worked and temporary workers hired. That is often a precursor to the creation of permanent, full-time jobs.

“Businesses in recent quarters have been getting some gains from productivity as they’ve been working their existing work forces harder," said Andrew Gledhill, an economist at Moody's Analytics. “That’s not something that can go on indefinitely. Workers are going to feel they can’t keep up in the same pace, and businesses are going to have to hire to keep up with growing U.S. and international demand."

But the outlook for a pickup in hiring is decidedly mixed — depending on where your job hunt takes you.

Like most economic statistics, national employment numbers tend to mask variations from one region to another. Some states, like Alaska, escaped the worst of the recession — in large part because of the state’s reliance on oil production to fuel its economy. As of April, employment levels in Alaska were 1 percent higher than a year earlier, according to the Adversity Index data.

But only three states shows employment back to levels of a year earlier. Payrolls in hard-hit states like California, Nevada and Arizona were more than 3 percent lower. In giant California a 3 percent change can represent some 400,000 lost jobs. And the outlook for those regions doesn’t point to a recovering job market anytime soon.

“When you see those states you think of housing and tourism,” said Gledhill. “Those two industries have kept those unemployment rates really high. Those industries may be near or at the bottom, but they’re not recovering with any vigor.”

As of April, housing starts were up year-over-year in all but West Virginia and the District of Columbia. Those numbers were likely boosted by the government’s home buyer tax credit. But more recent data aren’t encouraging. Separate reports this week showed unexpected drops in both new and existing home sales, and further declines are expected now that the tax credit expired at the beginning of this month.

"The new home market is now at the lowest level it's been in 42 years," said David Crowe, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. "There are very few new houses on the marketplace, and there are markets that are beginning to  recover and people want a new house. But our builders can't borrow because the banks are saying no to real estate, regardless of where it is or what kind of real estate it is.”

Since the financial panic of September 2008 sent bankers scrambling for cover, the lending industry has been slowly rebuilding the damage inflicted by a historic wave of bad mortgages. But progress remains slow among many regional and community banks.

“There's still a lot of problems out there, a lot of unrecognized or unrealized bad loans in the banking system,” said Mark Olson, former Federal Reserve Board governor who is now a banking consultant. That's a little bit of the crimp with the back's ability or willingness to lend. That's going to be another a drag on the economy.

Tight lending is having the biggest impact on local economies that rely on smaller businesses. Unlike large corporations that can borrow in the credit markets, smaller companies are reliant on their local banker for funding.

“A large proportion of them tend to be in construction and retail trade, said Gledhill. “And neither of these two industries are expected to hire in any significant numbers in the near term. Typically, in past recession housing is one of the driver industries."

Variations in job market conditions are even more pronounced at the regional level, as measured by metropolitan statistical areas or MSAs. Some of the hardest-hit areas have seen sharp rebounds in employment, according to the Adversity Index data, which uses a three-month “moving average” to smooth out month-to-month trends.

In Elkhart, Ind., payrolls had climbed back to where they were in April 2009, when the level of employment was down 23 percent from a year earlier. While payrolls are rising in most of the MSAs tracked by the index, a handful continue to slip lower, including Pascagoula, Miss., and Flint, Mich.

While employment is picking up in most cities, the job market hasn’t yet repaired the damage done by the recession. The number of people out of work in April was higher than a year earlier in all but 35 of the nation's 384 metro areas.

In general, job markets in the Midwest have fared better than on the coasts. That’s due partly to the reliance of those regions on agriculture and energy production, said Gledhill. They also didn’t get hit as hard by the housing bust that dragged many regions deep in recession. That helps explain why North and South Dakota have the lowest unemployment rates in the nation — below 5 percent.

“For the most part, these states had much less exposure to the housing boom-bust cycle,” said Gledhill. “There weren’t investor homebuyers coming in a buying up properties. And there wasn’t a huge influx of subprime home buyers because housing was relatively affordable.”

States and regions with a big manufacturing bases are also beginning got show signs of improving job markets, though a stronger dollar may weigh on those recoveries by dampening exports. Despite the improvement, those economies are still feeling the painful effects of heavy job losses to the recession.

“Industrial production has been creeping up off the bottom but it took such a hit during the recession its going to take a long time to recoup all those losses,” said Gledhill.

‘Play’ the index
The Adversity Index was created by msnbc.com and Moody's Analytics to track the economic fortunes of states and metro areas. Each month, the Adversity Index uses the latest data to label each area in one of four categories: expanding, in recovery, at risk of recession or in recession.

You can follow the fortunes of each metro area in the nation on our interactive map , which gives details for each metro area and state for the past 15 years. Here are several ways to explore this month's Adversity Index:

  • Our interactive map shows the economic health of every state and metro area. You can "play" the map on this page to watch the economy's ups and downs over 15 years, or select any state to see data for each metro area for each month.
  • The updated index will be published every month at adversity.msnbc.com, where you can read all the articles in this series. There is a lag of about six weeks.
  • An explainer tells how the Adversity Index assesses the economy. Many areas include multiple counties, and many cross state lines.
  • This list shows which counties are within each metro area. 

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Data: Adversity Index

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