Kern's economy recovers from pandemic better than other large cities, study finds

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Aug. 3—A new report says Kern County's economy has pulled through the pandemic better than most other large U.S. cities, even though local small businesses generally took a big hit in terms of closures and revenues.

The analysis by financial advice website found Kern's consumer spending was virtually unchanged between January 2020 and April 2021, while total job postings were up about a third during that time and local employment levels improved during the 15-month study period.

Overall, the study concluded the county's economic performance during the pandemic ranked 14th among the 49 biggest cities in the country, as measured by conditions prior to the arrival of COVID-19 as compared with this spring.

One clear lesson contained in the study is that local small businesses were "absolutely annihilated" by the pandemic, Cal State Bakersfield economist Richard Gearhart said by email Monday.

He wrote that the study suggests people fearful of becoming infected by the virus scaled back their social interactions considerably during the pandemic, and that this hesitance impacted small businesses.

Noting Kern tied for second-highest of the top 20-performing economies in terms of small-business closures, Gearhart also asserted factors unrelated to government contributed to the weakening of the local economy.

If the study had set aside farm jobs, Gearhart wrote, then it's likely Kern would not have performed so well relative to other large cities. He said the same could probably be said of Fresno, which ranked second overall in SmartAsset's report.

Salt Lake City scored highest of all. Only three California cities made the top 20, including Sacramento, which came in 15th, right behind Bakersfield. Sacramento scored much higher than Bakersfield in terms of a increased consumer spending, but it fared much worse on job postings.

The report looked at three areas of economic performance in January 2020 as compared with April 2021: consumer spending; number of small businesses in operation, as well as the revenue those businesses generate; and employment changes, measured by change in total job postings as well as government-reported unemployment figures.

Kern's consumer spending during the study period declined less than a tenth of 1 percent. The report said the number of small businesses in the county declined by 35 percent during that time, and that revenue generated by those businesses was down 28 percent.

In terms of employment, Kern did relatively well as job postings jumped 32 percent. The report stated the county's unemployment rate improved 5.6 percent during the study period.

Researchers combined these different factors to come up with a ranking based on how far above or below they were from 49 cities' mean average.

Gearhart said the change in consumer spending evident in SmartAsset's report is not necessarily good or bad. Maybe it's positive as a reflection of local resilience, he wrote, but it may also suggest there's not much discretionary income available locally.

Moreover, he theorized the minor change in local spending levels reflects how government recovery incentives were spent. It could be that such payments were spent locally on paying down debt obligations as opposed to buying goods or services as a way of stimulating the local economy, he noted.

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