Economic conditions in Atlantic County are dire. Four years into the weakest recovery in our lifetimes, the local labor market continues to deteriorate.

Data on employment and wages in the nation’s largest counties — just released by the U.S. Department of Labor — puts Atlantic County conditions in state and federal context, and the contrast is dispiriting.

Atlantic County is the only one of New Jersey’s 21 counties in which both employment and wages fell in the fourth quarter, the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

While jobs were growing 1.9 percent nationwide — increasing in 287 out of 328 large counties tracked by the BLS — and 1.1 percent in the state, they decreased 0.2 percent in Atlantic County in the fourth quarter.

Even people with jobs, however, are feeling the continued economic decline.

Average weekly wages in Atlantic County fell 1.4 percent, compared with an increase of 2.9 percent for the state as a whole and 4.7 percent for the United States.

The fall in wages from October through December was stunning. Only three other large counties among the 328 nationwide experienced wage reductions greater than in Atlantic County.

The bureau noted that Hurricane Sandy, which struck at the end of October, might be reflected in the numbers.

But note that in Ocean County, which was hit far harder by the storm than Atlantic County, employment increased by 1.2 percent and average wages went up 4.6 percent.

At $816, Atlantic County’s average weekly wage was the lowest among New Jersey’s large counties and nearly the lowest in the state.

That distinction went to Cape May County, with a fourth-quarter average wage of $737 per week.

Cape May and Cumberland counties aren’t large enough to be included in the bureau’s quarterly report. But we know from recent seasonally adjusted employment figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia that their job markets are among the nation’s worst, as well.

Cape May County had lost 2,000 jobs in the 12 months through this June. Its unemployment rate was 13.2 percent — far above the U.S. 7.4 percent jobless rate and the state’s 8.7 percent rate.

Cumberland County lost 500 jobs in the year to June, for an unemployment rate of 13.3 percent.

Still, things are worse in Atlantic County, which lost 2,800 jobs, a 2 percent drop, in the same 12-month period. Gains in some sectors were overwhelmed by the loss of 6,200 leisure and hospitality jobs the past year.

You don’t have to go far to see the better side of the recovery.

Bergen County ranked 36th out of 328 counties nationwide with an average wage increase of 6.2 percent in the fourth quarter. Morris County was 55th with a 5.4 percent gain.

Morris, Somerset and Mercer counties are all in the Top 20 in the nation for average weekly wages — ranging from $1,476 for Morris to $1,312 for Mercer. By contrast, the U.S. average wage was $1,000.

Let’s hope economists are right that tourism, which we count on to bring money to the region, is among the last industries to recover after a recession.

Stronger discretionary spending by people from elsewhere may be all the growth we can reasonably expect for a while.

Contact Kevin Post:

609-272-7250