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.

More bad economic figures: median household income down, poverty up

The effects of the economic crisis are reflected in two key updated figures just released by the US Census Bureau:

Data released by the Census Bureau today showed the proportion of people living in poverty climbed to 15.1 percent last year from 14.3 percent in 2009, and median household income declined 2.3 percent. The number of Americans living in poverty was the highest in the 52 years since the Census Bureau began gathering that statistic. Those figures may have worsened in recent months as the economy weakened…

The ranks of people in poverty increased to 46.2 million from 43.6 million. The last time the poverty rate reached 15.1 percent was in 1993. It climbed to 15.2 percent in 1983. Median household income in 2010 was $49,445, down from $50,599 the year before…

The income figures declined even as the U.S. economy expanded 3 percent in 2010. Growth has slowed this year to an annual rate of less than 1 percent, raising concern that the financial struggles of families will continue to worsen and hamper the recovery…

It was the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate, a trend that won’t reverse itself without “concerted action” on the part of policy makers, said Melissa Boteach, who leads a campaign to reduce poverty at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based research group with ties to the Obama administration.

I would love to hear politicians talk about this ahead of the 2012 elections and to do so in ways that go beyond typical “political speak.” Talking about taxes and jobs might make some sense: they have an effect on incomes and poverty rates and every politicians loves to promise more jobs. However, there are other factors involved as well and talking about taxes and jobs means that the conversation never really turns to these indicators but only stays on “safe” ground.

UPDATE 9/13/11 3:20 PM: Here is some more data on the topic, including time-series charts that give some perspective on poverty rates and median incomes by race.

New census findings on growing American income gap

The United Census Bureau released 2009 income figures recently and the news is not good: the income gap between the richest and poorest is at its widest level since 1968.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans — those making more than $100,000 each year — received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line, according to newly released census figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6 in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

A different measure, the international Gini index, found U.S. income inequality at its highest level since the Census Bureau began tracking household income in 1967. The U.S. also has the greatest disparity among Western industrialized nations.

At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, census data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.

Several key things to note:

1. A complete historical perspective is not possible since the Census didn’t collect household income information before 1967. But this most recent data can still be compared to 40+ years.

2. The US has the largest Gini coefficient, a statistic used in a lot of international comparisons of income, of any “Western industrialized nation.”

3. Even with the recent economic troubles, the incomes of the wealthiest (the top 5%) went up while those around the median income (about $50,000), with 50% of American below this income level, went down.

These are statistics that still matter and have important societal consequences without having to get into a discussion about whether it is moral or immoral for people to earn a lot of money.

Median income falls in the 2000s, poverty rate up

Recently released figures from the Census Bureau show troubling news with two oft-cited measures of income:

The bureau’s annual snapshot of American living standards also found that the fraction of Americans living in poverty rose sharply to 14.3% from 13.2% in 2008—the highest since 1994. Some 43.6 million Americans were living below the official poverty threshold, but the measure doesn’t fully capture the panoply of government antipoverty measures.

The inflation-adjusted income of the median household—smack in the middle of the populace—fell 4.8% between 2000 and 2009, even worse than the 1970s, when median income rose 1.9% despite high unemployment and inflation. Between 2007 and 2009, incomes fell 4.2%.

While the poverty figures have drawn a lot of media attention, they are now at 1994 levels (also around the time of a recession). It is not good news that the poverty rate is up but this isn’t catastrophic compared to recent historical figures.

Perhaps more troubling is the decrease in the median income over the course of an entire decade. This suggests that the economic problems aren’t just limited to those at the bottom of the economic ladder; it is affecting many more Americans who saw no real income growth over a ten year stretch. Figures like these are also used by some as evidence of the growing income gap in America.