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In Iowa, jobless rates are lower

Big difference between Whiteside and Clinton counties

Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

Once you cross either of the Mississippi River bridges from Fulton, you end up in Iowa, the Hawkeye State, the site of the first presidential caucuses every 4 years.

And another thing – a land of lower unemployment.

In March, Iowa’s jobless rate was 4.9 percent, about half of Illinois’ 9.5 percent.

The big difference even applies to counties along the river. Whiteside County’s rate is 9.7 percent, while the rate in neighboring Clinton County in Iowa is 5.8 percent.

The same goes for the two counties’ more rural counterparts to the north – 9.8 percent in Illinois’ Carroll County and 6 percent in Iowa’s Jackson County.

This trend applies to urban areas as well. In the Quad Cities, Rock Island County has an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent, higher than Davenport-centered Scott County’s 6 percent.

For Whiteside and Clinton counties, the disparity goes back a long time. Clinton County has had a lower unemployment rate every year since 1998, 3 years before Sterling’s steel mill shut down.

From 1991 to 1993, Whiteside County’s rate was higher, while Clinton County’s took that position from 1994 to 1997.

So what gives?

Professors and officials contacted for this story had no certain answers, but some ventured guesses.

Christopher Merrett, a geography professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb, emphasized that he didn’t have a “pat answer.” But he said the topography on each side of the river might contribute to the disparity.

The Iowa side, he said, is less likely to suffer flooding because it’s on higher ground.

“The Illinois side of the river is more prone to flooding,” said Merrett, director of Western’s Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. “That works against putting in a lot of investment other than agriculture. The west side of the river is more conducive to diverse economic development.”

Counties deeper inside each state reflect the larger trend. The unemployment rates in Lee and Ogle counties, east of Whiteside and Carroll counties, are similarly high at 9.6 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively.

The counties west of Iowa’s Clinton and Jones’ counties are 7.2 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.

Clinton, Whiteside have similarities

Christopher Marmé, an economics professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, said unemployment rates often are lower in areas where people’s levels of education are higher.

According to the U.S. Census, Clinton County residents are only slightly more educated on average. In the county, 89.7 percent are high school graduates or higher, compared with 86.5 percent in Whiteside County. Those with bachelor’s degrees or higher make up 16.4 percent of Clinton County’s population and 15.6 percent of Whiteside’s.

Whiteside County’s per capita income is $24,379, about $150 less than Clinton County.

Marmé, who lives in Clinton, has a a theory for the lower unemployment rate in his county.

“My impression is that a high percent of the working population in Clinton County works in the Quad Cities,” he said in an email. “So perhaps proximity to this much larger economic center provides another reason for lower unemployment.”

Sterling-Rock Falls is slightly farther from the Quad Cities than Clinton, but many local residents also commute across the river to that area.

Official: Jobless rate not best measure

Greg Rivara, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Employment Security, said he hadn’t studied the differences between Iowa’s and Illinois’ unemployment rates. But he warned against “oversimplistic analysis.”

“The unemployment rate is measured where people live, not where they work,” he said. “There really isn’t a conclusion to be drawn why the unemployment rate is one level on one side of the line and another on the other side.”

Rivara also said Illinois’ unemployment rate is typically higher than the national rate. Part of the reason, he said, is that, historically, a greater portion of the state’s population takes part in the labor force.

The unemployment rates in Illinois’ border counties are typically higher than their next-door counterparts in Wisconsin and Missouri, too. They’re about the same as those in Indiana and Kentucky.

Jason Anderson, Rochelle’s economic development director, said one of the keys is finding out where people are going for their jobs, which could better explain the employment situation.

Ogle County’s jobless rate is over 10 percent, he said, yet Rochelle, its biggest town, is considered a jobs engine.

“Seventy-five percent of the people who work in Rochelle don’t live here.”

Comparing counties

Here's a comparison of Illinois and Iowa counties that border one other along the Mississippi River:

Whiteside County vs. Clinton County

Whiteside County, Ill.

Unemployment rate: 9.7 percent

High school graduate or higher: 86.5 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher: 15.6 percent

Per capita income: $24,379

Clinton County, Iowa

Unemployment rate: 5.8 percent

High school graduate or higher, 89.7 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher, 16.4 percent

Per capita income: $24,533

Carroll County vs. Jackson County

Carroll County, lll.

Unemployment rate: 9.8 percent

High school graduate or higher: 89.1 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher: 16.2 percent

Per capita income: $26,196

Jackson County, Iowa

Unemployment rate: 6.0 percent

High school graduate or higher: 87.5 percent 

Bachelor's degree or higher: 14.6 percent

Per capita income: $23,752

Rock Island County vs. Scott County

Rock Island County (Moline)

Unemployment rate: 8.1 percent

High school graduate or higher: 86.8 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher: 22.0 percent

Per capita income: $25,609

Scott County (Davenport)

Unemployment rate: 6.0 percent

High school graduate or higher: 91.2 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher: 30.3 percent

Per capita income: $28,010

McDonough County vs. Lee County

McDonough County, Ill. (Macomb)

Unemployment rate: 7.9 percent 

High school graduate or higher: 91.6 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher: 33.5 percent

Per capita income: $18,854

Lee County, Iowa (Fort Madison)

Unemployment rate: 7.7 percent

High school graduate or higher, 87.5 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher, 14.8 percent

Per capita income: $21,392

Mercer County vs. Louisa County

Mercer County (Aledo)

Unemployment rate: 10.1 percent

High school graduate or higher: 88.1 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher: 14.0 percent

Per capita income: $25,878

Louisa County (Wapello)

Unemployment rate: 6.6 percent

High school graduate or higher: 81.7 percent

Bachelor's degree or higher: 12.5 percent

Per capita income: $22,642

Sources: U.S. Census, states of Illinois and Iowa

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