Editor’s Note: The following commentary by The Washington Post focuses on four counties, Including Elkhart, that serve as harbingers for a pending recession in the U.S.
Why do we care how Robertson County, Tenn., Pontotoc County, Miss., Boone County, Ill., and Elkhart County, Ind., are doing, or how much they have in common?
Because, in addition to manufacturing big-ticket luxuries beloved by the middle class, they have predicted every recession since 1975. Their 12-month average employment numbers always fall before a wider downturn begins.
Our most recent numbers, from early this year, show them bending south, but not cratering. But local officials remain upbeat, and it’s too early to tell if the counties are preparing to slip ahead of a downturn, or if any hint of weakness is just a temporary hiccup.
We focus on these counties because, unlike many others that weaken before the broader economy, they have shown strong job growth in recent decades. Their past downturns were exceptional and thus struggles there might plausibly signify something bigger.
And the implications are immense. These four counties won’t determine the next election. But the economy they inform us about will.
Each enjoyed a strong recovery after the Great Recession. Officials we spoke with often said anyone who wanted a job could get one. Employers expanded and there was more hiring on the horizon. But there are reasons for concern. The products they build — furniture, appliances, jeeps, motor homes and boats — are the types of products that get hit first when consumers tighten their wallets.
“All these big employers make things that are very susceptible to a downturn,” said economist Michael Hicks of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. And each major employer supports myriad services and suppliers, “so if you idle or slow down one factory’s orders, it hits everything from the gas and electric companies, to the soda-machine stockers, to the folks who cater meals or clean the place.”
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