ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The nation's struggling economy is expected to be the top issue in next year's presidential race, but the states holding the first primary contests have weathered these tough times in very different ways. Unemployment in Iowa and New Hampshire is well below the national average, while the jobless rates in South Carolina and Florida are among the highest in the country. This week, we'll explore how these differences might shape the early contest, and we begin today with NPR's Scott Horsley in Iowa.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Visiting a metal fabrication plant in Sioux City this month, Mitt Romney touted his successful business background, saying that's what America needs right now.
MITT ROMNEY: I want to use the experience I have in the world of the free enterprise system to make sure that America gets working again. These are tough times. You guys have jobs. Hope your spouses do. But I know these are tough times.
HORSLEY: But not as tough in Iowa as in many other parts of the country. November's unemployment rate in Iowa was just 5.7 percent, almost three points below the national average. That leaves more room for voters here to raise other issues with the candidates. When Romney opened the floor for questions, this man wanted to know about religion.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, I was wondering what you plan on doing to get "In God We Trust" back into this country again because our kids can't even celebrate Christmas in this country for fear of offending someone else. You know, when we came here, we were founded on "In God We Trust," and I'd like to see that back in this country again.
HORSLEY: But even in Iowa, where evangelical Christians play an outsized role in the GOP, the economy remains a key concern. The low statewide unemployment rate mask considerable variation outside the bigger cities. Duane Murray just relocated to Des Moines after struggling to make ends meet with part-time jobs in Northern Iowa.
DUANE MURRAY: The small towns, it's very, very difficult to find something full time. If you're not a nurse, it's really hard to get a job. There's nothing there, really.
HORSLEY: Iowa farmers are enjoying high prices for their corn and soybeans. But no matter how many hay bales or bucolic barns you see in the candidates' carefully crafted photo ops, the Iowa economy is not all about farming. Economist David Swenson of Iowa State University says even in the best of times, agriculture and all the related industries here account for about 20 percent of Iowa's jobs.
DAVID SWENSON: That sounds like it's a great big part of the economy, and it is. But it can't do much more than it's already doing. It's doing as well as it ever has historically, so to expect anything more out of it is asking way too much.
HORSLEY: And even though Iowa's unemployment rate is low, the state was losing workers for much of this year. Swenson complains a lot of young people have been moving out.
SWENSON: Our young adults like to go some place else to become unemployed. The young adults that we can't use, that graduate from colleges or are otherwise skilled workers, they tend to migrate out.
HORSLEY: Iowa's trying to fight this brain drain. Signs on the elevated walkways in downtown Des Moines boast that Forbes magazine ranked this city best in the nation for young professionals. That's thanks to the low cost of living and a concentration of banking and insurance companies.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Please join me in giving a Nationwide welcome to Senator Rick Santorum.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
HORSLEY: Nationwide Insurance has played host to nearly all the Republican candidates in its company cafeteria. But while financial service companies are growing in this area, finding a job is still a challenge for those without specialized skills. Dave Rocha has been out of work in Iowa for two and a half years.
DAVE ROCHA: Since June 26, 2009, I've used up all my unemployment. And hopefully, I can find something fairly soon. The economy just - we're in a recovery. It's just - it's not fast enough.
HORSLEY: And that sentiment is likely to hang over the Iowa caucuses because no matter what the statistics say, many Iowans feel as if they're still in a slump. While the Mississippi River flows to the east and the Missouri River to the west, Iowa is no island. Economist Swenson says many employers here, like the insurance company, operate nationwide. So Iowa's recovery won't really take hold until the rest of the country is doing better.
SWENSON: What Iowa makes, it either sells to or exports to everybody else. And we're only three million people. We can only eat so much and consume so much of what we produce. We depend on the rest of the country to want our stuff, and that's what we're waiting for.
HORSLEY: So while some voters in Iowa are focused on living up to the motto on our currency, "In God We Trust," others just want to see more of those dollars flowing.
Scott Horsley, NPR News.
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