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story.lead_photo.caption Kathryn Winfield stands next to the medical skeleton she worked on at Meridian Community College in Mississippi. She now works at a nursing home earning more than $13 an hour. - Photo by AP / ROGELIO V. SOLIS

MERIDIAN, Miss. -- A handful of states are still struggling nine years later to get their job markets back to where they were before the recession.

That's true in Mississippi, where job numbers and the overall size of the economy remain below 2008 levels. Unlike states that have long since sprinted ahead, Mississippi is struggling with slow economic growth and a declining population.

Miguel Brown, despite family ties to his hometown near the Alabama border, is working on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, chasing higher wages.

"It's rough," said the 49-year-old Brown. "There's not a whole lot of jobs in Meridian, especially that pay anything."

Not only Mississippi, but also Alabama, Michigan, New Mexico, and West Virginia are still below pre-recession job levels by multiple measures. That contrasts with states including Colorado, North Dakota, Texas and Utah, where employment numbers have soared. Nationwide, job numbers surpassed pre-recession peaks in the middle of 2014, about the same time Mississippi was saddled with the nation's highest unemployment rate.

Emilia Istrate, who produces a yearly report on how local economies are faring for the National Association of Counties, said the recovery has been widespread but "uneven."

"It explains why so many Americans don't feel the national economic numbers. It's because they live in one of these places that is still in recovery or struggling," Istrate said.

Growth has long lagged in Mississippi, and jobless rates are high even in good times. The unemployment rate fell to 5 percent in March, the lowest since the U.S. Labor Department began the current system of measurement in 1976. But at the same time that the Magnolia State's unemployment rate was at a record low, it tied for the ninth-highest among the states.

Mississippi suffers from ills that make it an economic laggard. Only 53 percent of Mississippi adults were working in 2016, the second-lowest share of any state. Mississippi's economy depends on slow-growth sectors, including government employment. While nearly 30 percent of Americans older than 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher, only 21 percent of Mississippians do.

The overall size of Mississippi's economy was smaller in 2016 than it was in 2008, and people are beginning to vote with their feet: the state's population has shrunk in the past two years.

"I think the population is falling because of the economy," said state economist Darrin Webb. "People have had to go where the jobs are."

That doesn't mean things haven't improved for many people. Economists have long advised that a better-educated, more productive workforce could eventually spur growth. The state's community colleges last year began offering not only adult education classes to high school dropouts, but also free training leading to career certification. Kathryn Winfield, 37, was one of the first graduates.

Returning to the labor force after two years spent caring for her dying father, she earned her high school equivalency degree and became a certified nursing assistant. After nearly a decade making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour working as a cashier, Winfield is now making more than $13 an hour helping care for nursing-home patients. She said the additional pay allows her to better provide for her three kids.

In some ways, Mississippi's economy has healed from the scars of the recession. Archie McDonnell Jr., the CEO of Citizens National Bank, said loan demand has rebounded above pre-recession highs at Meridian's largest financial institution, and the bank's profits have more than tripled from their bottom in 2011.

"People just decided, the recession's over, I've got to get back to running my business and investing and doing things," McDonnell said.

McDonnell said he's hopeful about investment in Meridian, noting a $50 million museum being built downtown, an investor seeking to redevelop a derelict 16-story art-deco skyscraper into a hotel, and new ownership at the city's mall.

The number of Mississippians who report being employed could top the pre-recession high when April data are released today. But employer payrolls, another way to measure employment, leveled off last year and remains about 1 percent below where they were before Mississippi's economy headed south in early 2008.

It is not just the number of jobs, but what they pay. Workers made an average of $669 a week in Meridian and surrounding Lauderdale County in late 2016, compared with $739 statewide and $1,027 nationwide.

Good wages are the reason that Brown says he has left his hometown of Meridian.

"These are my roots," Brown said. "Meridian will always be home, without a doubt, but you've got to make ends meet and you can't do it here."

Business on 05/19/2017

Print Headline: Uneven recovery has soft regions

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