Looking at concentrated income in the United States by county

Looking at median household income by county shows some interesting regional patterns in the United States:

There are more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. Of the 75 with the highest incomes, 44 are located in the Northeast, including Maryland and Virginia. The corridor of metropolitan statistical areas that runs from Washington, D.C., through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston includes 37 of these top-earning counties (where the median family takes home at least $75,000 a year). Zoom in to the region, and it shows a kind of wealth belt unmatched even on the West Coast.

Poverty is similarly concentrated in the American South. Seventy-nine percent of the poorest counties in the country (where the median family makes less than $35,437) are located in the South..

Relative to 2007, 33 percent of all U.S. counties saw statistically significant increases in poverty by 2012 (across all age groups), deepening the challenges in places that had been struggling even before the recession. Over this same time period, however, one part of the country in particular saw an actual increase in median incomes, and it wasn’t the traditionally wealthy Northeast corridor.

It was the Upper Great Plains. Statistically significant increases in median income, from 2007-2012, are shown in green.

The maps help make these regional patterns clear. But, I wonder how much looking at patterns obscures some important information:

1. Counties are relatively big pieces of land. While income by county tells us something, it also covers up important variation within counties. Take a wealthy county: it doesn’t mean everyone is doing so but just that the median is higher than other places. Think of Manhattan where there are plenty of wealthy people but not everyone there is working on Wall Street or buying luxury condos in new buildings. It would be a lot harder to show on a single map but having 25th and 75th percentile information for each county would help show the relative distributions.

2. These figures aren’t weighted by population. A number of those wealthy Northeast counties have lots of plenty. In fact, perhaps the headline is understated when the population is accounted for. In contrast, the end of the article looks at a few counties where median incomes actually increases – the Great Plains with their new found gas wealth – but there aren’t many people there.

3. It is misleading to have a headline about wealth and talk about wealth in the article when the actual measure being used is median income or poverty levels based on income. Actually, looking at wealth and people’s full assets would likely show even wider gaps between counties.

To reiterate: county-level data can gives us a sense of broad patterns or clusters but may not be the best way to think about income changes in the United States.

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