Where the Furloughs Fall

Tuesday, just after midnight, the federal government shut down. Absent a continuing resolution for funding, there’s no money to pay hundreds of thousands of federal workers in areas ranging from the national parks to the Internal Revenue Service. So for the next several hours, or days or weeks, they won’t be showing up to work and won’t be getting paid and that has different meanings in different communities.

The shutdown won’t affect all government workers. Men and women in control towers will continue to oversee air traffic. Soldiers on military bases, foreign domestic, will carry on. And overall most Americans who do not have regular dealings with the government may not notice big changes – only 2.1% of the U.S. workforce was employed by the federal government in 2012 (the latest available figures).

But viewed through the prism of the American Communities Project’s 15 county types the impacts look very different. Some places rely far more heavily on federal employment than others for their local economic activity and they find themselves far more exposed in the shutdown.

furloughs shutdown 2013

The data in the chart above come from the 2012 Census of Employment and Wages (CEW), and it shows just how uneven the spread of federal employment is. Two types stand far above the rest: the Military Posts, 7.2% of all jobs in those counties, and the Native American Lands, 6.6% of all jobs. The majority of the types, nine of them, are below 2.1%.

To be clear, those numbers in the Military Posts, which hold many of the nation’s largest military facilities, are not military employment. The CEW data are for civilian employees. While military bases obviously employ large numbers of soldiers, the communities around them also tend to employ large numbers of non-military defense department personnel that work in and around the base. There are also large numbers of federal contractors in those counties. The Military Posts are marked in dark brown on the map below – you can zoom in and pan across the map to find the counties.

Those places and the numbers in the chart above may have been on President Barack Obama’s mind when, immediately after the shutdown, he released a video saying soldiers would be continue to be paid and acknowledging that civilian defense workers would likely take a hit. He also mentioned the sequester in his remarks and how those same civilian defense employees were hit there.

The Department of Defense estimates half of its civilian employees will be furloughed in the shutdown. And remember that 7% in the Military Posts is an average for the group – meaning some are far lower, but in about one-third of those counties, the federal employment figure tops 10%.

What do those numbers mean? More than one might imagine at the community level. Many of those employees have dependents – husbands, wives and children – so the impacts reach more than just them personally. And perhaps more important economically, it means money taken out of the community that can be spent at the grocery or at restaurants or cafes.

A lot of communities may feel some of that, but when the percentage of affected workers climbs into the 7% – 10% range or higher, the hit can have a bigger impact. And, of course, a lot will depend on how long the shutdown goes. A few days might not be felt deeply, but a few weeks and the equation changes.

And there are some Military Posts especially exposed. About 16% of the jobs Christian County Kentucky, next to Fort Campbell, are civilian federal jobs and the unemployment rate for July (latest figures) was 13.2%. Near Fort Bragg, in Cumberland County North Carolina, 13% of the jobs are civilian federal jobs and the July unemployment rate was 10.8%. In Liberty County Georgia, home of Fort Bragg, about 24% of the jobs are civilian federal positions and the July unemployment rate was 10.6%.

Those numbers could carry a lot of weight if the shutdown is drawn out. The struggles of soldiers and military communities tend to draw the attention of the media and the Congress.

Those Military Posts are also heavily Republican in their voting patterns. In the 2012 election, more than 80% of the 89 counties voted for Republican Mitt Romney. They gave Mr. Romney more than 55% of their vote. Mr. Obama mustered about 44% in those counties.  If the shutdown drags on for a long period of time, that could become an issue for the GOP members of Congress.

None of that is an argument for or against the shutdown. The point is that the shutdown in Washington may be a national story, but many of the impacts will be play out very locally and some communities, especially those around military bases, are primed to feel a lot more pain than others.

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