Tennessee’s Historically Low Unemployment Rate Isn’t All Good

Tennessee’s Historically Low Unemployment Rate Isn’t All Good

A public library in Nashville serves homeless Tennesseans, offering a place to stay warm and use computers. The state’s workforce participation has fallen from a decade ago.

In short, Tennessee’s unemployment rate has fallen, but largely because many people in the state stopped looking for work.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate has dropped to historic lows recently, but many people in the statearen’t looking for work.

“The opioid crisis and educational attainment: the best explanations for why our labor force participation is so low,” said Matthew Murray, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville economics professor. “We’re dealing with the legacy problem of an older, uneducated population.”

The percent of the population that has a high school diploma in Tennessee has historically lagged the nation, though that gap began to narrow in recent years. But education is tightly correlated with other health outcomes that also affect workforce participation.

The state has higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and depression that nation overall. And the rise of the opioid crisis has further confounded the state’s health problems, all of which has kept some Tennesseans from working. The state has one of the highest opioid-overdose-related rates in the country, only a few places behind Ohio and West Virginia, which have seen worst of the overdoses.

“We have a pretty serious opioid crisis here. Prescription opioids are subtracting individuals from the labor market,” Mr. Murray said.

Still, certain parts of Tennessee are flourishing, mainly in and around the state’s metro areas, Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville, which attract young, educated workers and manufacturers who have set up shop in the areas just outside the cities.

Nationally, Tennessee has one of the lowest unemployment rates, behind only a few states, including energy powerhouse North Dakota and tech and tourism-flourishing Colorado. Overall, unemployment rates in October were lower in 12 states, higher in North Dakota and stable in 37 states, according to the Labor Department.


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