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How Unemployment Can Disproportionately Affect Neighboring States


The economic recovery after the pandemic looks very different depending on what state you're in. WBUR's Anthony Brooks looks at a dramatic disparity between New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Lately, New Hampshire's Republican governor, Chris Sununu, has been bragging about jobs.


CHRIS SUNUNU: There are tens of thousands of high paying jobs across the state available today.

BROOKS: At the height of the pandemic last year, New Hampshire's unemployment rate climbed to 16%. Today, it's 2.9%, among the lowest in the nation. That means New Hampshire businesses are desperate for workers and especially in the hospitality industry. Here at the Waterhouse Restaurant in Peterborough, business is brisk, but general manager Linda Quintanilha says she can't find enough staff to fully reopen.

LINDA QUINTANILHA: So half the patio's closed and half the dining room is closed. Right now, I could use dishwashers for sure, two more cooks.

BROOKS: Many New Hampshire businesses are offering incentives to attract workers. One trucking company outside of Concord is offering qualified drivers $10,000 bonuses.

RICHARD LAVERS: I thought they accidentally put an extra zero on (laughter).

BROOKS: Richard Lavers is New Hampshire's deputy commissioner of employment security.

LAVERS: That gives you a sense of the level of desperation for that type of worker.

BROOKS: In neighboring Massachusetts, there's also competition for workers, but demand is much more uneven. Before the pandemic, the two states had similar unemployment rates and both saw their jobless rates soar to 16% last year. But New Hampshire has bounced back much quicker. The latest jobless rate in Massachusetts is nearly 5%, two points higher than in New Hampshire. That means a lot more people like Caroline Sande of Boston are still looking for work.

CAROLINE SANDE: So it's really hard on me because I have a mortgage and I have my car loan and I have my bills, and, you know?

BROOKS: Sande is an immigrant from Kenya who cares for her elderly mother and 11-year-old son. She had a full-time housekeeping job in a Boston hotel. But when the pandemic hit, her hours were cut way back, and now she's struggling.

SANDE: What I'm also getting from unemployment is peanuts. So I'm stuck between a rock and a stone, and then I just leave it to God.

BROOKS: So why is the jobless rate in Massachusetts so much higher than New Hampshire's? Conservatives suggest it might be because some Republican governors, including Sununu of New Hampshire, ended the $300 federal supplement for unemployed workers while Massachusetts kept it. But the gap between New Hampshire and Massachusetts existed well before Sununu cut the benefit. So Michael Goodman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, offers a different explanation.

MICHAEL GOODMAN: Massachusetts is socially, economically, racially, ethnically more diverse than New Hampshire, more densely populated than New Hampshire.

BROOKS: Goodman points out the pandemic hit immigrant, Black and brown and working-class communities the hardest and that New Hampshire is much whiter and less urban. This helps explain why rural states like Vermont, South Dakota, Kansas and Utah have relatively low unemployment rates, while states with larger urban centers have some of the highest rates. Goodman says another key factor is how hard states were hit by the pandemic.

GOODMAN: Massachusetts shut down quite early, quite comprehensively, with very, very few exceptions.

BROOKS: New Hampshire had a more relaxed approach to COVID restrictions and lifted them completely in March, nearly two months ahead of Massachusetts. Economists say the intensity of the pandemic and how states responded has a lot to do with how well they're doing today. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.