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Amid worrying signs from global markets, many local NC economies remain unhealed from COVID-19

As North Carolina legislators move to pass a budget for the next fiscal year, signs that we’re at risk of replaying what happened in the wake of the Great Recession should give everyone pause.

A lot of market watchers are getting edgy as a series of economic indicators point to potential problems ahead. As the Federal Reserve looks to reduce inflation, consumers get more pessimistic, and war in Europe continues to destabilize global markets, the potential for a recession is very real. There’s still plenty of reason to hope we can avoid anything like the collapse of the Great Recession, but there is a chance that the hot economic run will come to an end before all of North Carolina’s communities recover what they lost during the pandemic.

North Carolina is still adding jobs, although at a significantly slower clip over the past few months. This slowdown mirrors what’s happening nationwide, and coincides with manufacturers in most of the country putting the brakes on production. Statewide, North Carolina has almost 108,000 more jobs than before COVID-19 so it’s not like the wheels have come off.

One problem, though, is the job growth is not reaching a lot of communities.

Roughly 2 out of every five counties in North Carolina still have fewer people working than before COVID-19. On the flip side, a similar number of counties have more people looking for work than before the pandemic. The combination of fewer people working and more people trying to find a job is a clear sign the local economy is not creating enough opportunities. A lot of those counties are in the eastern part of North Carolina and in more remote parts of the mountains. In many cases, these are also counties that never recovered all the jobs lost during the Great Recession, making COVID yet another blow for communities that were still trying to come back from the last one.

But it’s not just a problem in rural areas.

The Research Triangle and Charlotte account for almost 70 percent of the net job growth since the start of the pandemic, and several of North Carolina’s leading cities are still below pre-pandemic employment levels. Winston-Salem, New Bern, Greensboro-High Point, Greenville, Goldsboro, and Rocky Mount all have fewer jobs than before COVID-19, even while Raleigh has added over 30,000 jobs and 28,500 jobs have been created in Charlotte.

What we’ve got, then, is a real challenge on our hands. Federal aid throughout the pandemic was vital to propelling a much faster recovery than just about anyone expected, but it hasn’t been sufficient to address some of the economic divides that predated COVID-19. If the economy continues to slow, and even more so if we do enter another recession, a lot of North Carolina communities are going to need more targeted support than they have received in the past few economic cycles. Elected leaders allowed the injuries suffered during the Great Recession to become permanent scars in many communities and, if we don’t learn that lesson, this time around COVID-19 could be no different.