By August Benzow


Left-behind counties in the United States have just experienced their strongest three-year period of job creation and business growth since the turn of the 21st century. Despite their vigorous recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic gap between these counties and the rest of the country nonetheless continues to widen. 

Representing just under 1,000 counties and inhabited by 18 percent of the country’s population, these left-behind communities are defined by lagging population and income growth from 2000 to 2016.  

This analysis examines the economic experiences of left-behind communities in the run-up to the 2020 and 2024 presidential election cycles and illuminates the ways each has been markedly different.

Between 2016 and 2019, annual job growth in these counties averaged only 0.4 percent, less than one-third the national rate. By the start of 2020, fewer than one-third had recovered all the jobs they lost during the Great Recession, which ended more than a decade earlier.

However, between 2020 and 2023, jobs in left-behind counties grew more than four times faster than in the four previous years—and nearly half of these counties have already regained all the jobs they shed during the COVID downturn. 

Despite their recent economic resilience, left-behind communities are still making up lost ground from decades of stagnation. Fewer workers are now employed in these counties than almost a quarter-century ago. Meanwhile, the rest of the country continues racing ahead of them.

With many left-behind counties situated in swing states that could determine the next election’s outcome, the reverberating impacts of their economic struggles could have an outsized effect on the nation’s political trajectory as a whole.    

Stagnation and decline: what it means to be left behind

Researchers, academics, and politicians use the term “left behind” to describe communities in the United States that have experienced economic stagnation or decline compared to the national average over a sustained period. The concept has also become integral to attempts to understand the dramatic political realignment that happened across much of the developed world in the wake of the Great Recession[1], especially around the time of the 2016 presidential election in the United States[2] and the Brexit referendum in the UK.[3]

While scholars use different metrics to qualify places as “left behind,” the label generally signifies a long-term pattern of lagging growth, not just a temporary economic downturn. For the purposes of this analysis, left-behind communities are defined as counties that experienced less than half the national population and median household income growth rates between 2000 and 2016.

We chose the year 2000 as the starting point of our definition because it ushered in a difficult period for many U.S. communities, as the prosperous 1990s gave way to an era marred by two recessions, including the Great Recession, as well as the bursting of the housing bubble and its accompanying financial crisis. This tumultuous decade saw the accelerated hollowing out of American manufacturing, widespread job losses, and home foreclosures. The year 2016 was chosen as a critical juncture so that we can evaluate how these counties have performed since, in the run-ups to the 2020 and 2024 election cycles.

The map below shows the 972 counties that are classified as left behind. Home to 59 million people, 18 percent of the country’s total population, these counties can be found in nearly every state. The Great Lakes region is conspicuous for having an exceptionally high concentration of left-behind communities, with Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio being the only states where a majority of residents live in such counties.

Left-behind communities are not a monolithic group. They can be rural, urban, or suburban, with diverse underlying causes for their challenges. The important common ground they share is a widening gap between their economic and social well-being and the trajectory of the rest of the country.

Left-behind counties have seen strong job growth since the pandemic but have not kept up with the rest of the country

Job growth in left-behind counties remained sluggish from 2016 to 2019, averaging only 0.4 percent annually. This lagged far behind the national rate of 1.5 percent and continued a pattern of slow recovery from the Great Recession. Throughout the decade, these counties consistently saw job growth at less than half the national rate.

These counties lost a similar number of jobs in the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic—1.9 million and 1.7 million, respectively. But the recovery after COVID-19 has been much swifter. Collectively, left-behind counties have already recouped nearly all the jobs lost in the COVID-19 downturn. Individually, employment now exceeds pre-pandemic levels in nearly half (41 percent) of all left-behind counties. In the three years after 2020, annual job growth in left-behind counties has been five times faster than in the three years before it. (See our interactive map in the appendix to explore each county’s latest growth figures.)

The recent job growth in left-behind counties should nonetheless be viewed through the lens of their prolonged economic struggles. These communities still face a deficit of 1.8 million fewer jobs than they had in the year 2000.

After stagnant growth in the mid-2000s, they failed to ever fully rebound from massive job losses during the Great Recession. And despite their strong recovery from the COVID pandemic, the gap between left-behind counties and the rest of the nation has nonetheless kept growing wider in the past three years as other parts of the country continue to add jobs at much higher rates.

Back in 2000, left-behind counties accounted for 21 percent of all U.S. jobs. That share had fallen to 18 percent by 2016 and dropped even further to 17 percent by the end of last year. Even as their recent progress has been faster than in the 2000s and 2010s, left-behind communities are falling further behind the national economic trajectory.

Left-behind counties are seeing a surge in establishment growth

While job growth is a key indicator of economic health, the number of businesses in a community matters too. Residents are likely to feel more optimistic about their local economy if they see new businesses opening compared to those witnessing stagnation or closures. Interestingly, left-behind counties seem to have fared even better in this aspect since the pandemic.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the number of business establishments in left-behind counties was stagnant. This absence of new establishments reflected and compounded the broader economic challenges facing these areas as they fell farther behind national trajectories of growth and expansion.

However, the post-pandemic era has ushered in a surge of new establishment growth in left-behind counties. Since 2020, new business openings in these communities have accelerated to rates nearly on par with non-left-behind counties. This upswing represents a striking reversal from the prior pattern of disinvestment and a lack of establishment growth in left-behind America.

The robust increase in new business establishments combined with strong employment growth in left-behind counties represents their best three-year period of job creation and business growth since the turn of the 21st century. Although employment levels have not fully rebounded to pre-pandemic highs, the number of business establishments is now 9 percent above 2019 levels, marking a two-decade peak.

That said, it’s important to note that establishment growth has outpaced actual job growth nationally, a divergence that started in the mid-2010s. Consequently, it is too soon to tell whether the explosion of new establishments in left-behind counties will directly translate into comparably robust employment and income gains for the residents of these communities. The trend may be driven more by economic restructuring in the wake of the pandemic than by new growth firms or significant expansions from larger employers, who typically create substantial job opportunities. Regardless, strong establishment growth is a welcome sign of restoring economic health and vitality in these communities.

Population and median household income trends are improving in left-behind counties even as gaps persist

Given that the classification of “left-behind counties” hinges on their underperformance relative to national trends in population growth and median household income, it is important to assess whether these communities have made any progress in narrowing those gaps compared to the rest of the United States.

Throughout the late 2010s, left-behind counties remained stuck in a familiar rut of sustained population decline. From 2017 to 2019, these communities consistently hemorrhaged around 0.4 percent of their residents annually, continuing a multi-decade trend of shrinking population shares compared to the rest of the country.

Left-behind counties saw a notable improvement in 2020, with average population losses slowing to just 0.2 percent annually, likely due to pandemic-related relocations as more people moved into and fewer moved out of these areas. While there was a slight setback in the two following years, 2023 marked a significant milestone—the smallest annual decline in population in over a decade (0.1 percent). This suggests that, although outmigration persists, the pace of depopulation is slowing in many left-behind locales, inching closer to positive growth for the typical left-behind county.

Moreover, the longstanding gap in population trajectories between left-behind counties and the nation as a whole has started contracting. In 2016, a staggering 94 percent of left-behind counties lagged behind the overall U.S. population growth rate. Fast forward to 2023, and that figure had fallen to 80 percent. If this trend holds, it indicates that some left-behind areas may finally be turning a corner on stemming population losses.

In recent years, the number of left-behind counties with yearly median income growth slower than the national rate has significantly declined. In 2016, 70 percent of these counties lagged behind the national income growth rate, but by 2022, this figure had dropped to 48 percent. This indicates that more of these counties are now keeping pace with the national trend and showing some improvement in income growth.

Despite this promising trend, there is no sign that the average median household income in left-behind counties is converging with the nation as a whole. The gap has actually widened slightly. In 2016, the typical household in these counties earned $52,000 (adjusted to 2022 dollars) compared to $70,300 nationally–a difference of $18,000. By 2022, that gap had grown to $20,000, with the average median household income in left-behind counties reaching $55,200.

Rural left-behind counties are leading the recovery

Rural left-behind counties are among those leading the post-pandemic employment recovery. As a group they added more jobs in 2023 than any other segment of the left-behind map, and in percentage terms, they are now closest to regaining pre-COVID employment levels. The change in fortunes is stark: From 2016 to 2019, these rural communities struggled, creating just less than 10,000 net jobs over a three-year period; in 2023 alone, they added 104,000 as their recovery entered its third year.

While 90 percent of left-behind counties are rural, over half of left-behind residents live in populous suburban or urban areas, and these areas are recovering much more slowly. Even in relative terms, large urban left-behind counties still have 2.1 percent fewer jobs than in 2019, nearly double the 1.1 percent deficit found in left-behind rural counties.

Michigan highlights this uneven recovery. Rural Van Buren County in prospering Western Michigan recovered the 3,000 jobs it lost during the Great Recession by the end of the last decade and quickly rebounded from the pandemic recession. Conversely, Genesee County (Flint) lost 20,000 jobs in the Great Recession and only clawed back half those jobs before the pandemic hit. While it has added jobs over the past few years, it still lags well behind 2019 employment levels.

This rural-urban divergence suggests many smaller left-behind communities bounced back quicker from the pandemic’s initial shocks than harder-hit urban left-behind areas, which are still struggling to fully recover lost ground.

Heartland swing states have some of the highest concentrations of left-behind counties

Collectively, 13 million swing state[4] residents live in left-behind counties.

Among these states, Michigan has far and away the largest number of residents living in a left-behind county, with 6.7 million residents in these communities, or 67 percent of the state’s population, spread across 63 counties. While some large counties like Wayne (Detroit) and Genesee (Flint) buoy these numbers, 2.4 million of the state’s residents are in left-behind rural areas.

Two additional swing states, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, also have millions of residents living in left-behind counties. Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, which is part of the Scranton metropolitan area, was among the most populous counties that switched its support from Obama in 2008 and 2012 to Trump in 2016 and maintained that partisan shift in the 2020 election. Its job growth was below average for left-behind counties in 2023, at 0.8 percent, and it still has fewer jobs than it did in 2019.

Georgia, which has the second highest number of left-behind counties among pivotal swing states, also leads the economic recovery for these communities. Nearly half of Georgia’s left-behind counties have rebounded and exceeded their pre-COVID employment levels as of 2023.

In contrast, only about one-quarter of left-behind counties in Illinois and even fewer in Wisconsin have achieved the same milestone over the past few years. This divergence highlights how, even among communities that had been left behind from years of economic stagnation, some are now outpacing others on the road to a meaningful turnaround.

Even in blue states, left-behind counties mostly lean Republican

The past two presidential elections have seen left-behind counties solidify as Republican bastions. In 2016 and 2020, a lopsided 83 percent majority of these economically stagnant communities were carried by the GOP candidate—representing a dramatic 16 percentage point shift away from Democrats compared to 2008 voting patterns. The shift that began in 2008 demonstrates how potent the “left-behind” narrative became as a political force, allowing Republicans to secure footholds in communities previously rooted in the Democratic coalition.

This political trend cuts across state lines and the traditional partisan lean of a given state. While half of left-behind counties are located in solidly Republican “red” states, the other half are split between Democratic “blue” states and competitive swing states. However, even in blue states, a lopsided 73 percent majority of left-behind counties cast their vote for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

The Republican realignment in left-behind counties is most vividly illustrated by examining the communities that flipped from supporting Obama to Trump between 2008 and 2016. A total of 98 left-behind counties abandoned their previous Democratic allegiances to back the GOP nominee in 2016. Out of those 99 counties, only 6 shifted their support back to the Democratic candidate in 2020, while the other 92 counties continued to favor the Republican candidate as they had in 2016.


Left-behind communities have enjoyed their strongest three-year stint of job and establishment growth since the turn of the century. Nearly half of them have already recovered the employment levels they had prior to the pandemic-driven job losses, and their population levels look more stable than they have in years. Nonetheless, on important measures of job and income growth, left-behind counties continue to trail behind national averages. While their absolute economic performance has reached multi-year highs, their relative standing compared to other parts of the country remains unchanged as they work to regain their pre-pandemic footing. How voters in these communities perceive and factor these economic trends into their decisions at the ballot box this fall is a major open question this year. But one certainty is that the economic backdrop for the next presidential election cycle will be markedly different from both the original 2020 contest and the 2016 race.

Update: A previous version of this post had the number of left-behind counties listed as 966, but the correct number is 972. The section about the rural jobs recovery has been slightly modified from an earlier version of this report to give a more precise explanation of the trend. 

Methodology and Data Sources

This analysis relies on data from various sources:

Urban-rural definitions

Large urban counties are the most straightforward type of county to define. These counties all contain the population-weighted center of a large city (a population of 250,000 or higher).11 left-behind counties meet this definition.

Small urban counties contain the population-weighted center of a small-sized city (a population of 50,000-250,000) and are in a metropolitan area without a large city. 50 left-behind counties meet this definition.

Exurban/suburban counties are the most complicated type of county to define because they can often partially overlap with large urban areas and sometimes contain the population centers of small cities while extending into rural areas. Counties with at least 25 percent of their population living outside rural areas (based on definitions from the National Center for Education Statistics) are considered exurban or suburban if they are not already categorized as urban. 38 left-behind counties meet this definition.

Rural counties include all non-metropolitan counties and any county not categorized as urban or exurban/suburban. 873 left-behind counties meet this definition.


The author would like to thank Kenan Fikri, Sarah Eckhardt, and Cardiff Garcia for their contributions to this analysis.


  1. Rodríguez-Pose, Andrés, “The revenge of the places that don’t matter (and what to do about it),” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, Volume 11, Issue 1, March 2018, Pages 189–209, and Fiorentino, Stefania, Amy K Glasmeier, Linda Lobao, Ron Martin, Peter Tyler, “‘Left behind places’: what are they and why do they matter?,” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, Volume 17, Issue 1, March 2024, Pages 1–16.[]
  2. Hendrickson, Clara, Mark Muro, and William A. Galston, “Countering the Geography of Discontent: Strategies for Left-behind Places,” Brookings, 2018.[]
  3. Wood Matthew, Ivanka Antova, Mark Flear, Tamara Hervey, “What Do “Left Behind Communities” Want? A Qualitative Study in the United Kingdom using Photo Elicitation,” American Political Science Review, 2023, 117(4):1173-1187.[]
  4. Swing states include Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin based on what Cook Political identifies as toss-up states.[]

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