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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Lowest Unemployment Rate in the Midwest?

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence says his state has “the lowest unemployment rate in the Midwest.” But that depends on the definition of “Midwest.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics in March ranked Indiana’s 5.9 percent unemployment rate seventh lowest among 12 Midwestern states — tied with Wisconsin. But the Indiana Department of Workforce Development uses a narrower definition of the Midwest that ranks the state No. 1 among just five states.

Pence has boasted on more than one occasion about Indiana’s low unemployment rate — most recently April 27 on “Fox News Sunday.” “We have the lowest unemployment rate in the Midwest,” Pence told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace.

Two days earlier, Pence made the same claim (at the 3:33 mark) in a speech at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indiana. “Here in Indiana, we have balanced budgets and the lowest unemployment rate in the Midwest,” he said.

This has become a popular talking point for the former Indiana congressman, who became the state’s governor in January 2013 and is considered a potential presidential candidate for 2016. In February, Pence said this on CNN’s “State of the Union“: “We’re now the lowest unemployment rate in the Midwest.”

Indiana’s rate is relatively low. At 5.9 percent in March, it is well below the national average (6.7 percent) and tied for 20th lowest in the nation with Wisconsin, Delaware and Maine. But it is not lower than Wisconsin (5.9 percent), Minnesota (4.8 percent), Iowa (4.5 percent), Nebraska (3.7 percent) and three other states considered part of the Midwest by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS’ 12-state definition — which is used by the Census Bureau — also includes North Dakota (2.6 percent), South Dakota (3.7 percent) and Kansas (4.9 percent).

The Census Bureau further divides the Midwest into two sections: West North Central and East North Central. Indiana is in the five-state East North Central with Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. By that sub-definition, Indiana is tied for the lowest unemployment rate in the East North Central — although that doesn’t sound as impressive.

In Indiana, the state Department of Workforce Development had long considered the Midwest to be a six-state region that includes Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. In a December 2007 press release on unemployment, the department said that “Indiana’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the six-state Midwest region.” More recently, though, the department has narrowed the region to five states, as it did in a January 2014 press release on the unemployment rate. In a chart of “Midwest Unemployment Rates,” the press release lists Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio — dropping Wisconsin. At the time, Wisconsin had a lower unemployment rate than Indiana.

The BLS and Census definition of the Midwest may strike some as too broad, and the Indiana definition too narrow. So what’s just right? We went to the Midwestern Governors Association website to see how the Midwestern governors themselves — including Pence — define the region.

There are nine member states in the MGA, which is a “bipartisan organization that brings together governors and their staff to address public policy issues of significance to the region.” They include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. By that definition, Indiana would be in the middle of the pack — tied for fourth with Wisconsin, behind Iowa (4.5 percent), Minnesota (4.8 percent) and Kansas (4.9 percent).

We can’t say that Pence is wrong in declaring that his state has the lowest unemployment rate in the Midwest, but his definition of the region is limited. That’s something that his audience may want to consider the next time he boasts about his state’s standing in the region.

— Eugene Kiely