Douglas County’s unemployment, now at nearly 16%, continues to set records

photo by: Courtesy: KU Institute of Policy & Social Research

Projected unemployment rate in Kansas, by county, March 21 to May 2, 2020.

Douglas County’s unemployment rate is now estimated to be at about 16%, which makes it more than 2.5 times higher than at any point in the modern era.

KU economist and researcher Donna Ginther continues to use state data to make weekly estimates of unemployment rates for every county in the state. For the week ending May 2, Douglas County had an unemployment rate of 15.7%. It continues to have the second highest unemployment rate of any urban county in the state. You can see the estimated unemployment rates for each county in the map above.

But Ginther has added a new component to her research. She has looked at data going back to 1976 to determine the highest annual rate of unemployment for each county. She has created a map that shows how today’s estimated unemployment rate compares with the county’s all-time high. (Well, if time began in 1976, which would mean that disco may be the first thing humans ever heard. That would explain a lot.)

Douglas County’s unemployment rate is 2.66 times higher than its previous high of 5.9% in 2010. By that measure, Douglas County is one of the hardest hit counties in the state when it comes to unemployment.

Only Sedgwick County and its neighbor Sumner County have higher rates. Sedgwick County, home to a battered aviation industry, has unemployment that is nearly three times its highest rate, and Sumner is at about 2.75 times. You can see the full map below.

photo by: Courtesy: KU Institute of Policy & Social Research

Ratio of projected unemployment rate to historic maximum in Kansas, by county.

One takeaway from the map is that 68 of the state’s 105 counties have set a record for unemployment. Several more are on the verge of doing so.

Also interesting is that the employment losses don’t necessarily line up with the highest infection rates in the state. The map below shows infection rates per 1,000 people for every Kansas county. While Douglas County has seen its unemployment rate soar at essentially the third fastest rate in the state, it doesn’t have anything close to the third-highest infection rate in the state.

Rather, Douglas County’s unemployment numbers appear to be more of a sign of how dependent Lawrence’s economy has become on the university and service jobs that are tied to university students.

photo by: Courtesy: KU Institute of Policy & Social Research

COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people in Kansas, by county, as of May 9, 2020.

It could be worse, though; our economy could be tied to aviation. Ginther, who is the director of KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research, estimates that Sedgwick County has an unemployment rate of 26.2%. If those estimates are accurate, Wichita probably isn’t getting enough national attention as one of the hardest hit cities in the country. For example, unemployment reached approximately 25% nationally in 1933 in the Great Depression. Wichita is ahead of that mark currently.

Here are some other facts and figures from recent unemployment numbers released by the state for the week ending May 2:

• The number of initial claims for unemployment — in other words, people who have recently lost their jobs — declined sharply for the week. The state processed 16,416 initial claims, down from about 27,000 the previous week.

• The state paid out $99.7 million in unemployment benefits for the week. That’s up from $41 million the week before. The big difference comes from the $600 federal payment that Congress approved for everybody on unemployment. It took weeks for the state to start issuing those checks, but last week they came in large numbers. Of the $99 million in total payments, $63 million came from the federal money.

• In Douglas County, 4,486 people received unemployment benefits for the week. That was up from 3,521 in the previous week.

• Statewide, manufacturing continues to be the industry producing the largest number of job losses. Another 2,670 people in the manufacturing sector filed for unemployment during the week. Next closest was health care with just more than 1,900 new filings and accommodation and food services with just more than 1,800.


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