Is having the highest unemployment rate in the country a big deal?

The fact that Illinois has the highest unemployment rate among the 50 states isn't fazing most labor experts.

They point to the state's downward jobless trend and steady job growth throughout the year as more important economic indicators.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations and director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's labor education program, said a state-by-state comparison of unemployment rates isn't “apples to apples.”

In fact, it's more like apples to 49 other types of fruit.

“Comparing across states involves too many confounding variables to do an accurate comparison,” he said. “Looking at a state longitudinally gives you a fairer picture. Comparing it to a long-term average is helpful.”

Still, the state's 4.5% unemployment rate in September does provide grist for conservative groups and Republican lawmakers who contend that so many workers' inability to find jobs is proof of the state's inhospitable business climate.

“The tax environment is terrible for people living and investing in Illinois,” said Jason Heffley, state director for the Illinois chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative economic advocacy group. “The real job creators are scared to invest in Illinois, and who wouldn't be when you have super high taxes and super shaky finances?”

He pointed to the state's low bond rating as an example of the state's financial issues that he believes contribute to the unemployment rate.

The unemployment rate in September translates to roughly 290,000 jobless residents, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Some state has to be the highest,” said Carl Campbell, professor of economics at Northern Illinois University. “It's kind of much ado about nothing. What's more important is how many jobs are added. That's a better measure.”

According to federal labor figures, Illinois added 175,611 jobs since September 2021. That's the seventh most of any state and represents 3.8% of the more than 4.6 million jobs added among the 50 states during that time.

Only one state has fewer jobs today than a year ago, and it's a neighbor of Illinois: Wisconsin.

Other border states also reported modest job gains compared to Illinois over the past 12 months, federal records show.

“Job growth has been more robust here in the past couple of months than some neighboring states,” said Frank Manzo IV, executive director of the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, a labor-friendly policy research organization. “And while Illinois' unemployment rate is higher than other states, it's low by historical standards.”

In fact, the state's current rate is a full percentage point lower than it was a year ago, almost the same as the national trend.

Manzo's group recently issued a report on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state's labor force, concluding that “workers without college degrees, workers with children, workers aged 55 years old and older, workers in rural portions of the state, workers who are Black and workers who are Hispanic all experienced disproportionately large drops in employment in Illinois.”

According to the report, 11.1% of the state's labor force without a high school diploma were unemployed, while another 10.1% of the labor force with a high school diploma couldn't find a job.

Expanding broadband access across the state to allow workers in rural and poorer areas to take advantage of work-from-home opportunities is one suggestion from the report on how to make job access more equitable.

“Our labor force participation rate is one of the highest in the nation,” Manzo noted. “We have a lot of folks looking for work here because we have higher job quality than some of those other states.”

Hospitality jobs, mainly in hotels, also are down because of a decline in visitors to Chicago due to the pandemic.

“That's going to have a significant effect because of our service-based economy,” said Ralph Martire, executive director of the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “Not every state has the same mix of workers, which affects the unemployment rates.”

Martire and others noted that the state's current unemployment rate has been lower only in the two years before the pandemic, and the lowest it's ever been is 3.6% in November and December 2019, according to federal labor figures. Even then, more than half the other states had lower rates.

Highlights of Illinois' jobs numbers

4.5% unemployment rate in September — largest of any state.

•Equates to 290,602 unemployed Illinoisans.

•But Illinois added 175,611 jobs since September 2021.

•That's the seventh-highest number of any state.

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