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Is the grass greener in Iowa?

Published: Thursday, May 30, 2013 4:33 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 30, 2013 9:59 p.m. CDT

A few weeks ago, a fellow reporter, Kiran Sood, left this newspaper to take a job at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Before she moved, I spoke with her about the differences between Illinois and Iowa.

I started checking some stats on Cedar Rapids, which is 90 miles from Illinois. The jobless rate there was 5.2 percent in March.

That's an unemployment rate we'd kill for around here, where rates have been hovering around 9 percent for years.

I knew that statewide, Iowa had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, but I figured that wouldn't be the case just across the Mississippi River.

I was wrong. Clinton County Iowa, across the river from Whiteside County, enjoys an unemployment rate of 5.8 percent and a slightly higher per capita income (and, to really make us envious, a typically lower gasoline price).

This situation between Whiteside and Clinton counties is not unique. All along the border, Iowa counties have lower unemployment rates.

So why does the economy improve as soon as you cross the Mississippi River?

I called a number of experts, but no one had any certain explanations. One Illinois state official warned against "oversimplistic analysis."

Unfortunately, I couldn't find anyone who has studied the reasons behind the gap in jobless rates.

Is it because of taxes? Is it because the state of Illinois is heavily in debt while Iowa is not? Do state regulations make a difference?

These could be factors, but who knows for sure?

One certainty, though, is that political boundaries affect economies. Have you ever crossed the Mexican border? You notice differences right away. Rule of law on the U.S. side, not so much on the other. An army of street salespeople just across the border, few on this side. Better roads in United States.

Probably the world's starkest differences are between South and North Korea. Their peoples share the same heritage and culture; world powers divided the peninsula only a few decades ago.

South Korea is free; North Korea is not. North Korea suffers famines, and its leadership is the world's most reclusive. South Korea, by contrast, boasts Hyundai and Samsung. And just last year, South Korean rapper Psy 's video, "Gangnam Style," was the first ever to get a billion views on YouTube. In North Korea, most people have no access to YouTube.

As for Whiteside and Clinton counties, few differences exist. The cultures and people are similar. As with much of the Midwest, the two counties have suffered long industrial declines. So what causes the difference between the jobless rates?

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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