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.”
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