Even for the most remote part of Massachusetts (Franklin County), it’s far from business as usual

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The Connecticut River valley is home to some of the most productive agricultural land in New England, and rural Franklin County, Massachusetts has some visible agricultural traditions. The county seat of Greenfield alone is home to several tree farms, a livestock producer, and a composting service.


At the same time, Franklin County is a poster child for the decades-long trend of declining agricultural and manufacturing jobs across the country, and COVID-19 has thrown an additional wrench into the county’s initiative to reshape its economic identity to emphasize tourism and the arts. The area’s patchwork of small towns has created an economic landscape that’s hard to categorize, as exhibited by the lack of a strong presence of any given industry (see Table 1). 


Table 1: Unemployment rate estimates among Franklin County zip codes with frontage on the Connecticut River, as of May 16

Zip Code Primary Community Most Common Employment Sector, 2018 Unemployment Rate, March 14  Unemployment Rate, April 18  Unemployment Rate, May 16
01301 Greenfield Health Care 2.6% 20.1% 25.7%
01376 Montague Health Care 2.7% 16.0% 25.0%
01344 Erving Professional/STEM 3.3% 19.2% 24.4%
01375 Sunderland Construction 1.4% 18.5% 24.0%
01354 Gill Public Administration 2.0% 18.1% 23.3%
01360 Northfield Education 3.4% 17.8% 22.4%
01373 Deerfield Manufacturing 2.1% 17.3% 22.2%
01342 Deerfield Manufacturing 1.2% 16.7% 21.8%
01349 Montague Health Care 4.4% 16.8% 20.6%
01351 Montague Health Care 2.7% 16.0% 20.3%

Sources: MassEconomix.org, Applied Geographic Solutions Inc. 


While towns with more well-defined commercial centers, like Greenfield and Orange, tend to have higher unemployment rates in the wake of COVID-19, Franklin County had the narrowest range of modeled unemployment rates by zip code among Massachusetts counties with multiple zip codes on May 16. This is likely due to the relatively uniform character of the communities in the area, as blue-collar urban zip codes have generally been more adversely affected with joblessness in recent weeks.


Still, in a county entirely made up of small towns, there’s bound to be some variation subject to random chance. Every community in Franklin County has an estimated unemployment rate above 20% as of May 16, with some of the most sparsely populated communities in the state – Rowe and New Salem, for example – having significantly higher rates. This is according to Pioneer Institute’s new COVID-19 Unemployment Tracker, which presents unemployment estimates modeled by Applied Geographic Solutions, Inc., based in Thousand Oaks, California.


Meanwhile, zip code 01373, home to the county’s largest employer, Yankee Candle, has a relatively low modeled unemployment rate of 22.2%. While the coronavirus outbreak has not yet coincided with the candle industry’s peak season of business (the winter holidays), Franklin County is also dealing with pre-existing economic concerns. COVID-19 will surely deter economic activity from tourism and recreation, and as travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders remain in place, Franklin County likely won’t have to wait for leaf-peeping season to see the devastating impacts on employment.  


The data in this tracker was provided by Applied Geographic Solutions, Inc. (AGS), of Thousand Oaks, California, according to their weekly release including estimates through May 9, 2020, and is presented with their written authorization. The methodology that AGS used to model this data is described here. Because the federal government does not report unemployment rates by ZIP Code or community, and issues unemployment reports on a time-delayed basis, AGS has created an economic model to estimate real-time unemployment by state and municipality using a combination of federal employment sources. In its modeling, AGS uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics labor force by ZIP Code and occupation; weekly state-by-state initial jobless claims by occupation; and monthly labor force publications that provide detailed unemployment estimates by state, and major metropolitan areas. AGS says this about its methodology: “On a weekly basis for the next several months, AGS will be creating and making available an updated, rolling weekly unemployment estimate at the block group, ZIP code, and county levels of geography. While we do not pretend to have “on the ground” information to support these estimates, our initial tests on the data to date suggest that our methodology is a reasonable one – we are focusing on the distribution of employment by occupation and using a series of estimates of vulnerability curves to simulate what is being reported at a national and state level.”


Andrew Mikula is the Lovett & Ruth Peters Economic Opportunity Fellow at the Pioneer Institute. Research areas of particular interest to Mr. Mikula include urban issues, affordability, and regulatory structures. Mr. Mikula was previously a Roger Perry Government Transparency Intern at the Institute and studied economics at Bates College.