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Border towns of El Centro and Yuma lead the nation's metro areas in unemployment

January 4, 2011 |  3:45 pm

Yuma California's metro areas once again led the nation in unemployment in November. Of the 13 metro areas with unemployment rates of 15% or higher, 11 were located in California, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Tuesday. In other words: Stay away from El Centro.

The Imperial Valley city near the U.S.-Mexico border had the highest unemployment rate of all metro areas in the nation in November at 29.1%. The second-highest is also a border town: Yuma, Ariz., which had an unemployment rate of 24.8%.

Does the bad condition of Western border towns make a statement about illegal immigration and the economy? No, economists say. It may be true that many people move back and forth across the border in these towns, working in one country and living in the other, but anyone who collects unemployment benefits or is counted in a payroll survey is likely to be a legal worker.

Something that is a little strange, though: In an area suffering in the economy, El Centro's labor force just keeps growing. The labor force -- the number of people looking for work -- grew to 77,100 in November from 76,500 in November 2009. The year before that it was 74,200, and before that it was 69,100.

Why does the labor force keep growing even as the unemployment rate remains high? Ruben Duran, the city manager, attributes it to people moving back home to El Centro after working throughout the state.

"We have more people here than before," he said, in a previous interview. "We're a little confused."

El Centro has gotten a lot of attention thanks to its plight, including an article in the Economist. But it's not the only California town with very high unemployment. Of the 29 metro areas with a population of 1 million or more, Riverside-San Bernardino was tied with Las Vegas for the highest unemployment rate at 14.3%.

California metro areas with unemployment over 15% included Merced (18.6%), Hanford-Corcoran (16.4%), Fresno (16.9%), Modesto (17.2%), Redding (15.7%), Stockton (17.5%), Visalia-Porterville (16.8%) and Yuba City (19.3%)

The only areas that came close in the nation were Bend, Ore. (14.3%), Flint, Mich. (12.5%), Elkhart-Goshen, Ind. (13.3%), Rockford, Ill. (13.7%) and Ocala, Fla. (14.6%).

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Yuma, Ariz., has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Credit: Ken Lund via Flickr