- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

Economic prosperity in Northern Virginia has cost harder-hit downstate residents extended federal jobless benefits.

Notices went out this week to about 5,700 long-term unemployed residents that assistance under the federally funded Extended Benefits program was being cut off because the state’s overall unemployment rate dipped below 6.5 percent for three consecutive months.

But dozens of Virginia counties continue to struggle with unemployment levels above 8 percent, and 14 localities have unemployment rates in the double digits. Roughly half of the counties that line the North Carolina border have unemployment rates above 9 percent.

Factoring in all localities, Virginia unemployment sat at 6.3 percent in March, with April statistics due to be released Friday. If Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria and Fairfax weren’t counted, the rate would jump to 7.1 percent.

Under that scenario, many of the qualifying Virginians who live in downstate areas that contrast starkly with the prosperity in Northern Virginia and who have been out of work longer than 18 months would still receive 13 extra weeks of aid available to those unemployed longer than 73 weeks.

“It’s diversity based on geographical locations,” said David Tysinger, economist for the Virginia Employment Commission. He named localities in south central Virginia that have particularly suffered: the city of Martinsville, where the unemployment rate is 17.8 percent, and Mecklenburg County, with 10.1 percent of its eligible residents unemployed.

“They were heavily manufacturing, especially in textiles and furniture, which have almost disappeared, and then you have almost no diversity in your other industries to keep the unemployment rate from going up,” Mr. Tysinger said.

Delegate Joseph P. Johnson Jr., Abingdon Democrat, pointed to lower salaries in the region.

“[Jobs] pay very low wages and it’s not an incentive for people to move in or stay here,” Mr. Johnson said. “What used to be important agriculture and even coal mining is no longer the big thing because the pay is not there.”

By contrast, only 3.9 percent of Arlington residents and 4.5 percent of Fairfax County and Alexandria residents who are searching for work can’t find it. Besides the region’s more diverse array of industries, it benefits from federal government jobs and such contracting giants as Northrop Grumman and Booz Allen Hamilton.

A second economic bubble exists in the Charlottesville area, home to a thriving health care industry and the University of Virginia. Unemployment is 6 percent in the city of Charlottesville and 4.8 percent in the surrounding county of Albemarle.

“It makes it a challenge obviously when there are disparities between certain regions of the state,” said Delegate Tim Hugo, Fairfax Republican. “It makes it imperative for creating jobs everywhere in the state.”

Unemployed Virginians still have access to state-funded benefits for up to 26 weeks and another 47 weeks of federally-funded benefits through emergency unemployment compensation programs.

The 6.5 percent benchmark is one of several congressionally-approved triggers states can use to determine when they will go off the program. More states are going off the Extended Benefits program as their economies recover: 31 now participate, down from 39 in December.

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