A series of maps showing job gains and losses in the United States over the past five years makes a fascinating study of how joblessness spread across a country heading for massive economic recession.

Using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, researchers from Austin-based economic development consulting firm TIP Strategies created a map that uses simple but effective visualizations to help people understand the way economic disaster spreads geographically. If you visit their site, you can watch the map slowly slide through each quarter since 2004, with job gains and losses ballooning outward when various sectors grow or shrink.

It's worth quoting at length from their analysis:

The timeline begins in 2004 as the country starts its recovery from the 2001 recession, following the bursting of the dot-com bubble. At first, broad economic growth was apparent across most of the country. Two notable exceptions are the Bay Area - the hub of the tech boom that drove job growth during the prior decade - and several metropolitan areas within the Midwest. The map reveals that much of the industrial Midwest never fully recovered from the previous recession, as manufacturers continue to shed jobs while other parts of the country were adding them in large number.

Equally telling is the short-lived expansion of construction- and real estate-related job growth in Sun Belt states, such as California, Florida, Georgia, and Arizona, during the middle of the decade as the nation's appetite for new homes increases. During this period, the map also captures the dramatic job losses in New Orleans in 2005 as a result of Hurricane Katrina, as well as the city's slow recovery driven largely by construction-related employment.

By 2007, regional evidence of the coming economic downturn starts to appear. Employment growth in California and Florida starts to wane, with the first signs of actual losses beginning in the middle of the year in Los Angeles and Tampa. At the same time, layoffs accelerate in the nation's manufacturing heartland. By the first quarter of 2008, job losses in the Southeast and Midwest begin to spread, setting off a chain of losses in neighboring areas until the two regions unite in recession. The same pattern appears on the West Coast, with the epicenter in Los Angeles marching eastward to the Front Range of the Rockies.

Check out all the maps, and the full study, on the TIP website.