America’s ‘Left Behind’ Counties Make a Comeback (of Sorts)

America’s “left behind” counties — which fell behind the rest of the country beginning in the early 2000s — aren’t so far behind…

Photo of a now hiring sign
Photo by Eric Prouzet via Unsplash

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America’s “left behind” counties — the heartland and manufacturing locales that fell behind the rest of the country beginning in the early 2000s — aren’t so far behind anymore. 

According to a new report by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), nearly 1,000 counties previously marked by economic stagnation — representing 18% of the US population — are adding businesses and jobs at the fastest rate in a quarter-century.

Mend the Gap

“Left behind” is shorthand for US communities defined by economic stagnation or decline. EIG defined the group by identifying counties that saw less than half the national growth rates in population and median household income between 2000 and 2016. The result: 966 counties, home to 59 million people. Some are rural, some suburban, some urban. 

They appear everywhere from New York to Florida to Illinois to Michigan to Colorado to California to Alaska. Apart from a widening economic gap compared to the rest of the country, they don’t necessarily have anything in common. Well, except for glimmers of macroeconomic hope:

  • The “left behind” counties lost 1.9 million jobs in the Great Recession and, by the time the pandemic rolled around in 2020, less than a third had recovered their lost positions. But between 2020 and 2023, the countries regained almost all of the 1.7 million jobs they collectively lost during the pandemic. As of last year, 41% had employment above pre-pandemic levels, while the number of business establishments is 9% above 2019 levels and the highest in 20 years.
  • There are other positive signs: In 2016, 94% of the counties lagged the US population growth rate, but that fell to 80% last year; the number of counties that trailed the national income growth rate fell from 70% in 2016 to 48% in 2022.

Job Not Done: The counties still trail the rest of the US in employment levels and income, and there’s no indication they will catch up any time soon — there’s a lingering deficit of 1.8 million jobs from 2000. But they’re feeling a lot less forlorn.