2020 Pandemic Misery Index: Assessing Metropolitan Areas in the U.S.

Last month, the Private Enterprise Research Center published the Pandemic Misery Index (PMI) for states, which measures the effects of the pandemic on each state and the states’ responses to the pandemic in terms of impact on health and on the economy.  Here we replicate the calculation of the PMI for Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). The PMI is the addition of an MSA’s average unemployment rate for the months of March to August to its cumulative deaths per 10,000 for the same months. The index measures the economic and human toll of the pandemic in a very simple way. It also illustrates how localities have balanced stemming the spread of the virus and maintaining economic activity.

The dashboard below presents the Pandemic Misery Index for all of the MSAs in the U.S.  The bar graph depicts the combined average unemployment rate and the deaths per 10,000 people. The El Centro MSA, located in southern California along the border with Mexico, has the highest PMI value at 42.4. This value is based on an average unemployment rate of 26.3% and 16.1 deaths per 10,000.  The lowest PMI value is in the Logan MSA, which spans the Utah / Idaho border and, at 4.26, is essentially 1/10th the size of the El Centro PMI value. Between these values, some patterns emerge. Many of the MSAs with the lowest PMI values have smaller populations and are more geographically remote, while many of the MSAs with the highest PMI values are in the northeast, the area that bore much of the initial brunt of the virus’s spread. However, some MSAs in the southwest also have high PMI values.

Pandemic Misery Index=March to August average unemployment rate + ((March to August total deaths/population)*10,000) 
Sources: COVID-19 deaths from the New York Times retrieved from Tableau's Covid-19 Data Hub, unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019 population estimates from the Census Bureau. 

However, as the scatter plot reveals, there is a variety of outcomes among both large and small MSAs. The size of the circles in the scatterplot reflect the population of the MSAs, and those represented in red are the MSAs with populations in excess of 5 million residents. The largest among these MSAs, New York-Newark-Jersey City, has a PMI of 36.1, based on an average unemployment rate of 13.7% and 22.5 deaths per 10,000 people. At 11.4, Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington has the lowest PMI of the large MSAs with an average unemployment rate of 8.7% and 2.7 deaths per 10,000 people. This PMI is lower than that of many smaller MSAs.

On the map, we also see variation in PMI values across the country. The areas with the deepest shading have the highest index values, and again many of these areas are in the northeast. New England states see a range of PMIs and combinations of unemployment rates and death rates. Alternatively, in general, the west coast states’ MSAs have relatively low deaths per 10,000 but a wide range of unemployment rates, including some that are at the higher end of the range.


The outcomes will change over time.  Unemployment rates are declining in many areas, and cumulative death rates are growing at different speeds. These metro area PMIs illustrate the wide range of outcomes across the United States and within states and regions. They also provide insight into the balance of public health outcomes and economic outcomes as various MSAs deal with the pandemic.

Data and Methods
We use coronavirus-related death information from the New York Times database retrieved from Tableau’s Covid-19 Data Hub. Population data and statistical area delineations come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates are sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The Pandemic Misery Index is calculated by adding the average unemployment rate in percent from March to August, and the total number of deaths per 10,000 people for the same time period.

The data provided by the New York Times are recorded at the county level. New York, NY, Joplin, MO, and Kansas City, MO are recorded separately from the counties they belong to, these were added to their respective Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Fifteen of the 381 reported statistical areas have BLS data recorded for their metropolitan New England city and town areas (Met NECTAs) equivalent. The list of MSAs The Met NECTA unemployment data for our list of MSAs is recorded in the references and notes section.

References and Notes
Covid-19 Deaths
New York Times; Tableau COVID-19 Cases Starter Workbook
This downloadable workbook; Retrieved from Tableau September 21, 2020.
U.S. Census Bureau; Population, Population Change, and Estimated Components of Population Change: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019 (CO-EST2019-alldata):
Statistical Area Delineation
Core based statistical areas (CBSAs), metropolitan divisions, and combined statistical areas (CSAs); Retrieved September 15, 2020.
Unemployment Rate
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Smoothed Seasonally Adjusted Metropolitan Area Estimates ; retrieved September 30, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/lau/metrossa.htm

Posted: October 05, 2020 by Dennis W. Jansen, Carlos I. Navarro, Andrew J. Rettenmaier