Watch How the Unemployment Tsunami Swept America (in 20 seconds)

Watch How the Unemployment Tsunami Swept America (in 20 seconds)

Watch How the Unemployment Tsunami Swept America (in 20 seconds)

This GIF shows how a tsunami-like event washes over the United States and recedes again – leaving behind a very different landscape. Compiled from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, this is a graphic representation of unemployment levels in each U.S. state over the last 15 years. That tsunami? The Great Recession, from 2008 onwards. Here’s how it changed the face of the nation.


The lighter the pink on this map, the nearer the relevant states are to full employment. The deeper the purple, the closer they are to the highest level of unemployment, 15%.

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A recent poll shows most Americans think the year 2000 was the greatest in the nation’s history. Judging from the employment figures, the U.S. was indeed in great shape at the turn of the millennium. In 2000, most states were colored in the lightest-but-one shade of pink, denoting unemployment levels between 2.5% and 4.99%. Only Virginia did better, with unemployment under 2.5%. Seven states and DC did worse, but not by that much. Alaska’s 6.4% unemployment was the highest in the nation, followed by the District of Columbia (5.6%), West Virginia (5.5%), Mississippi (5.4%), Louisiana (5.3%), Washington state (5.2%), Oregon (5.1%) and Montana (5%).

Some international context: in the same year, unemployment in the UK stood at 5.6%, in Spain at 14.2%, in France at 10.2% and in Germany at 7.7%.

And it’s all downhill from there. Even before the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. economy experienced significant turbulence, with negative consequences for the job market. If 2000 was a high point in retrospect, it’s also because it’s the year in which the dot-com bubble burst.

By 2001, third-degree pink has taken over California, Nevada and Idaho on the West Coast; Texas, Arkansas and both Carolinas in the South; and Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky in the Midwest.

A year later, only a minority of states, most in the northern Plains and northern New England, are still resisting third-degree pink. Oregon, meanwhile, is turning positively purple, with unemployment in the 7.5% to 9.99% bracket.

In 2004, the fever seems to have broken. For the next few years, the dark pink tide recedes. By 2007, only 12 states and DC fall in the 5% to 7.49% bracket, all other states are a level down, between 2.5% and 4.99%.

This is, of course, the quiet before the storm. In 2008, only the big empty states in the middle escape a return to third-degree pinkishness. Michigan, home of the hard-hit auto industry, leads the nation in unemployment (8%), followed closely by Rhode Island (7.8%) and California (barely clinging to third-degree pink with 7.3% unemployment).

Things get worse quickly. In 2008, no state had double-digit unemployment. In 2009, no less than 14 states were coloring purple – none in a deeper hue than Michigan, with a whopping 13.7% of its labor force out of a job. With unemployment hovering between 11% and 11.3%, Oregon, Nevada, South Carolina, California, Rhode Island and Alabama were the other worst-hit states. There were seven more double-digit states: North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois (all between 10.2% and 10.6% unemployment).

By 2010, government support for the auto industry turns the tide in Michigan (where unemployment drops to 12.6%), but with a 13.5% jobless rate, Nevada now heads the deep purple club. Things have also gotten worse in California (12.2%).

Is it judicious government policy or the self-healing power of the free market? Probably a bit of both: eventually, the tide turns. By 2012, Nevada has killed off the deep purple league, with its unemployment now at 11.2%.

In the  three full years since then, the economy has made a strong recovery. By 2013, fourth-degree pink was loosening its grip on the East Coast and a year later, it only lingered on in California, Nevada and Mississippi.

By 2015, the last fourth-degree pink states have disappeared. But the new normal is not as rosy as the good old days back in 2000, when only a handful of states suffered from third-degree unemployment. Fully 12 states have unemployment rates between 6% and 7%, another 17 hover between 5% and 6%. The darker pinks have colonised the West Coast and most of the eastern U.S. Escaping with unemployment levels between 2.5% and 4.99% are the northeast, Virginia, Indiana and Ohio, and the middle states, from Texas to the Dakotas. Low unemployment is no longer the norm; which is why they call it the ‘Jobless Recovery’.

Watch How the Unemployment Tsunami Swept America (in 20 seconds)

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