Midwestern states with low unemployment have few virus rulesNovember 2, 2020
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Five of the six states with the nation’s lowest unemployment rates are in the Midwest, have Republican governors and have almost no restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
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The governors say their decisions not to impose harsher restrictions are paying off with fewer business closures and more hiring reflected in the strong jobless numbers. But economists say it’s not so simple. Although businesses that are struggling during the pandemic can benefit when governors opt not to require masks or limit in-door gatherings, other factors may play an even bigger role in producing such low unemployment rates.
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And those same rules that could initially help the states’ economies also are blamed for their leading the nation in coronavirus infection rates, raising questions about whether their hands-off approach is sustainable. North Dakota and South Dakota have the most cases per capita in the U.S., and Nebraska and Iowa aren’t far behind.
“If hospitalization and death rates increase, then you have a motivation by politicians to close the economy down. That would be very deadly and push unemployment rates back up,” said Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University in Omaha.
For now, though, those Midwestern states have a lock atop the unemployment rankings, far below the national average rate for September of 7.9%. Nebraska leads the nation with a 3.5% unemployment rate, followed by South Dakota, Vermont, North Dakota, Iowa and Missouri.
Most of the Midwestern governors imposed some restrictions last spring, but they were among the first to ease them, arguing that they needed to balance efforts to slow the virus’ spread with the need for a robust economy.
“I’ve got to believe that if you shut down harder, you’re going to see a more severe impact to your industries and the longer you’re shut down, the harder it’s going to be for those industries to rebound,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told The Associated Press.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who tested positive for COVID-19 in September, has touted a balanced approach to coping with the pandemic. And Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds urged residents not to let the virus dominate their lives.
In South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem said: “There’s consequences to what we’ve seen happen in other states — that shutting down businesses, stopping people’s way of life has some devastating impacts. We’re taking a very balanced approach.”
In contrast, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, has worked aggressively to tamp down the virus, including closing some businesses in the spring and imposing a mask mandate. Vermont now has one of the nation’s lowest COVID-19 infection rates along with the third-lowest unemployment rate.
Like the Midwestern states, Vermont is largely rural with industries that weren’t hurt as badly by the pandemic.
Economists say that’s not a coincidence, noting that states dominated by agriculture and some kinds of manufacturing were able to operate closer to normal and managed to bounce back more quickly. That contrasts with states that rely on tourism, such as California, Nevada and Hawaii, which have the nation’s highest unemployment rates.