May 3, 2024 - Business

Exclusive: Where the living-wage jobs are (and aren't)

True Rate of Unemployment, 2023
Note: Share of the U.S. labor force that is functionally unemployed (seeking but unable to find a full-time job, is unemployed or is employed in a position earning less than a living wage); Data: Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity; Chart: Axios Visuals

The full spectrum of inequality within the U.S. is on display in an updated dataset released Friday by the Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity (LISEP).

Why it matters: Boom towns like Denver, Nashville and Dallas are seeing very low levels of unemployment — in stark contrast to areas with large numbers of low-wage jobs, such as El Paso, Fresno and New Orleans.

How it works: LISEP's proprietary True Rate of Unemployment measures the proportion of workers looking for a full-time job that pays a living wage — and who are unable to find one.

  • Nationwide, the True Unemployment rate is 24.2%; it averaged 23% in 2023.

The big picture: The True Unemployment rate tends to track — but also be much higher than — the headline BLS unemployment rate.

  • That's because the BLS rate excludes people who might be earning only a few dollars a week; LISEP, by contrast, counts as unemployed anybody earning less than $25,000 per year.
  • The BLS, unlike LISEP, also excludes anybody who has stopped looking for work or is discouraged by a lack of jobs or the demands of child care.

Zoom in: Many rich towns have much lower True Unemployment than the national average.

  • Bend, Oregon, is at 11%; Topeka, Kansas, is at 15%; Denver and Nashville are both at 16%.
  • At those levels, the numbers are low enough that they could mostly include people so rich they don't need to work.

The other side: Pockets of painfully high unemployment remain.

  • In the border town of Laredo, Texas, the True Unemployment rate is a shocking 52% — despite it being the busiest port in the country.
  • In nearby McAllen, the rate is 48%, thanks in part to the fact that some 35% of the over-25 population doesn't have a high school diploma.
  • Other high-unemployment cities include El Paso (32%), Fresno (31%), and New Orleans (28%).

Between the lines: Within Texas, the range is huge — while the border towns of Laredo and El Paso struggle, the Dallas-Forth Worth area is much better than the national average, at 20%. And in oil-rich Odessa, the rate is just 17%.

What they're saying: "Local communities investing in infrastructure, housing, and future-oriented industries consistently outperform those more reliant on low-wage jobs," says LISEP founder Gene Ludwig.

The bottom line: There are plenty of good jobs in America — but they're not evenly distributed.

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