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Which metro areas have fared better in the COVID-19 rebound?

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in March 2020, the U.S. economy was riding the crest of a decade-long expansion. The Brookings…

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By Alan Berube, Eli Byerly-Duke

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States in March 2020, the U.S. economy was riding the crest of a decade-long expansion. The Brookings Metro Monitor found that from 2009 to 2019, 179 of the nation’s 191 largest metro areas had posted growth in jobs, adult employment rates, and median earnings. While that growth did not consistently close significant economic gaps by race and place, a tightening labor market in the late 2010s seemed to finally be spurring more inclusive outcomes in many metro areas. 

That momentum dissipated nearly overnight. Between February and April 2020, the U.S. economy shed 22 million jobs—nearly 15% of total employment. Shortly thereafter, Brookings Metro began to track the local impacts of the pandemic economic crisis in our Metro Recovery Index. Over the succeeding 12 months, the Index revealed significant differences in the pace of the economic rebound across metro areas, with local trends in the labor market and other indicators of economic activity often tracking the ups and downs of successive COVID-19 waves. 

Now, a little more than two years removed from the pandemic’s onset, we are revisiting the data to see whether metro area economies are truly back on their feet, even as their residents continue to navigate the effects of a persistent virus and the more recent challenge of inflation. While the data does not yet tell us much about who is benefiting—or not—from the recovery (e.g., by race, gender, age, or other demographic characteristics), it does indicate where the recovery has been stronger and weaker. The picture, as ever, remains mixed. 

Most metro areas still have fewer jobs and higher unemployment than before the pandemic 

The U.S. economy has posted a stronger, faster jobs recovery than almost anyone anticipated in the spring of 2020. Starting in May 2020, the economy added an average of nearly 900,000 jobs per month over the subsequent 22 months. Nevertheless, there were still 1.2 million fewer jobs economy-wide in March 2022 versus just prior to the pandemic—equivalent to a 0.8% decline. 

Not surprisingly, then, most of the nation’s largest metro areas still fall somewhat short of their pre-pandemic job totals (Map 1). Of 191 U.S. metro areas with populations of at least a quarter million, 121 (63%) had fewer jobs in March 2022 than in February 2020. In many of these metro areas, the jobs shortfall was relatively minor, similar to the national average. A dozen metro areas, however, had at least 5% fewer jobs than before the pandemic, including several in the Eastern Great Lakes area, and a couple (Honolulu and New Orleans) in which significant tourism sectors have not fully rebounded. 

By the same token, there were a handful of metro areas that posted significant job gains over pre-pandemic levels. Most were in states whose economies and populations were growing quickly prior to the pandemic, such as Idaho, Florida, Texas, and Utah. Indeed, the rate of job growth a metro area experienced from 2010 to 2019 alone explained more than one-third of the variation in metro area job trends over the two-year recovery period.  

However, patterns in metro area unemployment rates were quite different. Similar to the jobs trend, 116 metro areas (61%) overall had a higher unemployment rate in March 2022 than prior to the pandemic. However, the metro areas with the largest increases in unemployment included not only tourism-dependent economies (including Atlantic City, N.J. and Las Vegas, in addition to Honolulu and New Orleans), but also several in Texas. Texas metro areas were gaining working-age residents even as jobs increased, slowing the decline in local unemployment. By contrast, several metro areas in states such as Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio, where jobs recovered more modestly, nonetheless experienced reductions in unemployment rates compared to pre-pandemic. This seemed to be because their labor forces grew more slowly—or in many cases, shrank—likely due to a mix of retirements, out-migration, and people dealing with sickness (such as long Covid) or caring for family members.  

Trips to workplaces are still down everywhere, but retail vacancy has also dropped in many metro areas 

In the early stages of the pandemic, mobility data from Google based on users’ geolocation data showed that fewer than half of workers in many metro areas were traveling to their usual place of work. Nearly anyone who could work from home did; only essential workers made daily trips to their workplaces, risking exposure to COVID-19 in the process. These rates of workplace visits began to rebound in many metro areas in the summer of 2020, as many cities and states reopened restaurants and entertainment venues.  

Yet in metro areas with particularly large populations of office workers, trips to workplaces were slower to rebound, and remain well below pre-pandemic levels given the persistence of the virus and growing trends in remote/hybrid work. Not one of the 192 metro areas we analyzed had met or exceeded their January 2020 levels of workplace visits (Map 2). Yet that deficit ranged widely, from just 3% in Ocala, Fla. to 33% in the San Francisco Bay Area. In several other tech capitals—Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Jose, Calif., and Seattle—workplace visits were down at least 25%, reflecting what may be a permanent reduction in the prevalence of office work in tech industries. At the other extreme, a range of midsized metro areas around the country had workplace visits in March 2022 that neared pre-pandemic levels. This may indicate that these regions have relatively fewer office jobs that can be performed remotely, or a stronger cultural leaning toward in-person work. 

Regular travel to workplaces dropped in every metro area

Notwithstanding the across-the-board decline in regular workplace visits, retail vacancy rates in most metro areas (113 of 192, or 59%) are at least somewhat below their pre-pandemic levels. Many of these metro areas, particularly midsized ones, experienced a small initial rise in vacancies after the pandemic’s onset, which has since abated. Of the metro areas experiencing significant increases in retail vacancies, several are college towns—Ann Arbor, Mich.; Boulder, Colo.; College Station, Texas; Lansing-East Lansing, Mich.; and Santa Cruz, Calif.—in which the extended absence of students seems to have resulted in permanent business closures and challenges for landlords seeking to re-lease those properties. 

To be sure, the metro-wide figures tracked here tend to mask trends in big-metro submarkets—particularly, highly impacted central business districts. The often-cited Kastle Back to Work Barometer still shows only 43% office occupancy in the 10 cities where Kastle’s clients’ buildings are most highly concentrated. Many tech capitals are beginning to confront the need to rethink the role and design of their downtowns, which for the foreseeable future seem unlikely to serve as large a commuter class as they did before the pandemic.  

Rents and home prices are up nearly everywhere from pre-pandemic levels

In stark contrast to the Great Recession, which brought—and was brought on by—a crash in home prices, the pandemic recession fueled a run-up in residential real estate prices. Households sought more space as they stayed home more, took advantage of exceedingly low borrowing costs, moved to new locales for remote work, and/or repurposed savings once reserved for travel and entertainment to acquire more square footage.  

The upshot: Prices for homes and apartments rose nearly everywhere, albeit by varying degrees. The median listing price for homes was higher in March 2022 than March 2020 in 169 of 192 metro areas (88%), and the median apartment rent was higher in 146 of 148 metro areas (99%) for which data is available.  

Median home listing prices skyrocketed by 40% or more in metro areas, including second home/retirement destinations (several in Florida alone), secondary metro areas just outside large tech capitals (e.g., Bridgeport, Conn. outside New York; and Salinas, Calif. outside San Jose), and emerging hubs for tech growth and remote work (e.g., Austin, Texas; Boise; and Huntsville, Ala.) (Map 3). The small handful of metro areas where home prices declined since the pandemic’s onset were mainly places with older industrial economies in the Midwest (e.g., Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Toledo, Ohio) and South (e.g., Birmingham, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Roanoke, Va.). 

Home prices have risen in most metro areas

 Rents also jumped significantly in Florida metro areas, as well as in a wider set of Sun Belt destinations such as Albuquerque, N.M.; Asheville and Greensboro, N.C.; Killeen-Temple and Waco, Texas; Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; and Riverside, Calif. By contrast, rents plateaued or even dropped slightly in some of the largest metro areas where tech and professional services jobs dominate: Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Several of these ranked among the regions experiencing the largest domestic out-migration during the first year of the pandemic, which appears to have alleviated the pressure on several previously overheating rental markets.  

Both home listing price and rental price trends in metro areas tracked closely with job trends; where jobs rebounded most strongly, price increases tended to follow. 

Rents are higher almost everywhere

 Toward convergence, or divergence? 

Two years on from COVID-19’s outbreak in the United States, our metro areas exhibit a wide spectrum of economic recovery. It remains to be seen, though, whether their diverse experiences will eventually narrow economic gaps across our places, further expand them, or leave us somewhere in between. 

 On the one hand, the pandemic has greatly impacted some of America’s most economically prosperous regions. “Superstar” metro areas such as Boston, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. have not posted strong job recoveries, their office workers have not returned in large numbers, and their rental markets have softened considerably. While there is understandable concern about what all this means for their continued ability to spur innovation and national growth, these regions could undoubtedly stand to become more affordable and accessible. Meanwhile, regions that have rebounded more strongly while remaining somewhat more affordable—such as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Raleigh-Durham, and Utah’s Wasatch Front—could yet become more prominent drivers of national prosperity in the pandemic’s wake. 

On the other hand, the two years since COVID-19’s onset do not appear to have fundamentally altered the long-standing uphill battle for growth and prosperity in much of the nation’s heartland. Many of the same metro areas that were growing slowly before the pandemic—in regions such as the Great Lakes, Appalachia and the Piedmont, and the older industrial Northeast—continue to do so today. Their unemployment rates remain low mainly because they are losing working-age residents. Their downtowns, many of which were beginning to show new signs of life just before the pandemic, confront a difficult road ahead. These regions are most in need of a national response that invests in a broader geographic distribution of innovation-led, inclusive economic growth, through initiatives such as the Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge, the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines program, and the proposed regional technology hub program in the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act.  

With potentially choppier economic waters ahead, the pace and character of our nation’s diverse metro area recovery bear continued monitoring and national policy responses. 

 

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Economics

One Year Ahead Inflation Expectations for July (and Forward 2-3 Year) Drop

The NY Fed measure of inflation expectations dropped dramatically from 6.8% in June to 6.2% in July. This is a much larger drop than the Michigan series…

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The NY Fed measure of inflation expectations dropped dramatically from 6.8% in June to 6.2% in July. This is a much larger drop than the Michigan series (0.1ppt).

Figure 1: CPI inflation year-on-year (black), median expected from Survey of Professional Forecasters (blue +), median expected from Michigan Survey of Consumers (red), median from NY Fed Survey of Consumer Expectations (light green), forecast from Cleveland Fed (pink), mean from Coibion-Gorodnichenko firm expectations survey [light blue squares]. Michigan July observation is preliminary. Source: BLS, University of Michigan via FRED and iPhiladelphia Fed Survey of Professional ForecastersNY FedCleveland Fed and Coibion and Gorodnichenko

Not only did the median one year expected drop, so too did the implied 12 month inflation rates for 2-3 years out.

Figure 2: One year median from NY Fed Survey of Consumer Expectations as of indicated date (blue ), implied 12 month growth rates for 2-3 years out (tan). Source: NY Fed, and author’s calculations.

Notice that the longer term expected rate 2-3 years out is back to (and less) than where it was pre-pandemic. This is consistent with the five year inflation breakevens (unadjusted and adjusted) reported in yesterday’s post.

Figure 3:  Five year inflation breakeven calculated as five year Treasury yield minus five year TIPS yield (blue, left scale), five year breakeven adjusted by inflation risk premium and liquidity premium per DKW (red, left scale), both in %. Light blue dashed line at 2.5% CPI inflation, consistent with 2% PCE inflation. NBER defined recession dates shaded gray. Source: FRB via FRED, Treasury, NBER, KWW following D’amico, Kim and Wei (DKW) accessed 8/4, and author’s calculations.

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Sex work is real work: Global COVID-19 recovery needs to include sex workers

Societally, we need to recognize that sex workers have agency and deserve the same respect, dignity and aid as any other person selling their labour.

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Globally, sex workers have been left to fend for themselves during the pandemic with little to no support from the government. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

During the pandemic, business shifted from in person to work-from-home, which quickly became the new normal. However, it left many workers high and dry, especially those with less “socially acceptable” occupations.

The pandemic has adversely impacted sex workers globally and substantially increased the precariousness of their profession. And public health measures put in place made it almost impossible for sex workers to provide any in-person service.

Although many people depend on sex work for survival, its criminalization and policing stigmatizes sex workers.

Research shows that globally, sex workers have been left behind and in most cases excluded from government economic support initiatives and social policies. There needs to be an intersectional approach to global COVID-19 recovery that considers everyone’s lived realities. We propose policy recommendations that treat sex work as decent work and that centre around the lived experiences and rights of those in the profession.

Sex work and the pandemic

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently reported that apart from income-loss, the pandemic has increased pre-existing inequalities for sex workers.

In a survey conducted in Eastern and Southern Africa, the UNFPA found that during the pandemic, 49 per cent of sex workers experienced police violence (including sexual violence) while 36 per cent reported arbitrary arrests. The same survey reported that more than 50 per cent of respondents experienced food and housing crises.

Lockdowns and border closures adversely impacted Thailand’s tourism industry which relies partially on the labour of sex workers.


Read more: Sex workers are criminalized and left without government support during the coronavirus pandemic


In the Asia Pacific, sex workers reported having limited access to contraceptives and lubricants along with reduced access to harm reduction resources. Lockdowns also disrupted STI or HIV testing services, limiting sex workers’ access to necessary healthcare.

In North America, sex workers have been excluded from the government’s recovery response. And many began offering online services to sustain themselves.

A woman stands backlit next to a dimly lit bus that reads 'Thailand' with green lighting.
Sex workers stand in a largely shut-down red light area in Bangkok, Thailand on March 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Government vs. community response

Globally, sex workers have been left to fend for themselves during the pandemic with little to no support from the government. But communities themselves have been rallying.

Elene Lam, founder of Butterfly, an Asian migrant sex organization in Canada, talks about the resilience of sex wokers during the pandemic.

She says organizations like the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform are working in collaboration with Amnesty International to mobilize income support and resources to help sex workers in Canada.

Organizations in the United Kingdom, Germany, India and Spain have also set up emergency support funds. And some sex worker organizations have developed community-specific resources for providing services both in person and online during the pandemic.

Global recovery needs to include sex workers

The International Labour Organization’s “Decent Work Agenda” emphasizes productive employment and decent working conditions as being the driving force behind poverty reduction.

Sociologist Cecilia Benoit explains that sex work often becomes a “livelihood strategy” in the face of income and employment instability. She says that like other personal service workers, sex workers also should be able to practice without any interference or violence.

In order to have an inclusive COVID-19 recovery for all, governments need to work to extend social guarantees to sex workers — so far they haven’t.

As pandemic restrictions disappear, it is crucial to ensure that everyone involved in sex work is protected under the law and has access to accountability measures.

A woman stands wearing a mask with a safety vest on in front of a collage of scantily clad women and a sign that reads 'nude women non stop'
A volunteer helps out at Zanzibar strip club during a low-barrier vaccination clinic for sex workers in Toronto in June 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Recommendations

As feminist researchers, we propose that sex work be brought under the broader agenda of decent work so that the people offering services are protected.

  1. Governments need to have a legal mandate for preventing sexual exploitation.

  2. Law enforcement staff need to be trained in better responding to the needs of sex workers. To intervene in and address situations of abuse or violence is critical to ensure workplace safety and harm reduction.

  3. Awareness and educational campaigns need to focus on destigmatizing sex work.

  4. Policy-makers need to incorporate intersectionality as a working principle in identifying and responding to the different axes of oppression and marginalization impacting LGBTQ+ and racialized sex workers.

  5. Engagement with sex workers and human rights organizations need to happen when designing aid support to ensure that an inclusive pathway for recovery is created.

  6. Globally, there needs to be a steady commitment towards destigmatizing sex workers and their services.

Despite the gradual waning of pandemic restrictions, sex workers continue to face the dual insecurity of social discrimination and loss of income support. Many are still finding it difficult to stay afloat and sustain themselves.

Societally, we need to recognize that sex workers have agency and deserve the same respect, dignity and aid as any other person selling their labour.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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OU researchers award two NSF pandemic prediction and prevention projects

Two groups of researchers at the University of Oklahoma have each received nearly $1 million grants from the National Science Foundation as part of its…

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Two groups of researchers at the University of Oklahoma have each received nearly $1 million grants from the National Science Foundation as part of its Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention initiative, which focuses on fundamental research and capabilities needed to tackle grand challenges in infectious disease pandemics through prediction and prevention.

Credit: Photo provided by the University of Oklahoma.

Two groups of researchers at the University of Oklahoma have each received nearly $1 million grants from the National Science Foundation as part of its Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention initiative, which focuses on fundamental research and capabilities needed to tackle grand challenges in infectious disease pandemics through prediction and prevention.

To date, researchers from 20 institutions nationwide were selected to receive an NSF PIPP Award. OU is the only university to receive two grants to the same institution.

“The next pandemic isn’t a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” said OU Vice President for Research and Partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia. “Research at the University of Oklahoma is going to help society be better prepared and responsive to future health challenges.”

Next-Generation Surveillance

David Ebert, Ph.D., professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering in the Gallogly College of Engineering, is the principal investigator on one of the projects, which explores new ways of sharing, integrating and analyzing data using new and traditional data sources. Ebert is also the director of the Data Institute for Societal Challenges at OU, which applies OU expertise in data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and data-enabled research to solving societal challenges.

While emerging pathogens can circulate among wild or domestic animals before crossing over to humans, the delayed response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for new early detection methods, more effective data management, and integration and information sharing between officials in both public and animal health.

Ebert’s team, composed of experts in data science, computer engineering, public health, veterinary sciences, microbiology and other areas, will look to examine data from multiple sources, such as veterinarians, agriculture, wastewater, health departments, and outpatient and inpatient clinics, to potentially build algorithms to detect the spread of signals from one source to another. The team will develop a comprehensive animal and public health surveillance, planning and response roadmap that can be tailored to the unique needs of communities.

“Integrating and developing new sources of data with existing data sources combined with new tools for detection, localization and response planning using a One Health approach could enable local and state public health partners to respond more quickly and effectively to reduce illness and death,” Ebert said. “This planning grant will develop proof-of-concept techniques and systems in partnership with local, state and regional public health officials and create a multistate partner network and design for a center to prevent the next pandemic.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes One Health as an approach that bridges the interconnections between people, animals, plants and their shared environment to achieve optimal health outcomes.

Co-principal investigators on the project include Michael Wimberly, Ph.D., professor in the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences; Jason Vogel, Ph.D., director of the Oklahoma Water Survey and professor in the Gallogly College of Engineering School of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science; Thirumalai Venkatesan, director of the Center for Quantum Research and Technology in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences; and Aaron Wendelboe, Ph.D., professor in the Hudson College of Public Health at the OU Health Sciences Center.

Predicting and Preventing the Next Avian Influenza Pandemic

Several countries have experienced deadly outbreaks of avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, that have resulted in the loss of billions of poultry, thousands of wild waterfowl and hundreds of humans. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma are taking a unique approach to predicting and preventing the next avian influenza pandemic.

Xiangming Xiao, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology and director of the Center for Earth Observation and Modeling in the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences, is leading a project to assemble a multi-institutional team that will explore pathways for establishing an International Center for Avian Influenza Pandemic Prediction and Prevention.

The goal of the project is to incorporate and understand the status and major challenges of data, models and decision support tools for preventing pandemics. Researchers hope to identify future possible research and pathways that will help to strengthen and improve the capability and capacity to predict and prevent avian influenza pandemics.

“This grant is a milestone in our long-term effort for interdisciplinary and convergent research in the areas of One Health (human-animal-environment health) and big data science,” Xiao said. “This is an international project with geographical coverage from North America, Europe and Asia; thus, it will enable OU faculty and students to develop greater ability, capability, capacity and leaderships in prediction and prevention of global avian influenza pandemic.”

Other researchers on Xiao’s project include co-principal investigators A. Townsend Peterson, Ph.D., professor at the University of Kansas; Diann Prosser, Ph.D., research wildlife ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey; and Richard Webby, Ph.D., director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Wayne Marcus Getz, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is also assisting on the project.

The National Science Foundation grant for Ebert’s research is set to end Jan. 31, 2024, while Xiao’s grant will end Dec. 31, 2023.


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