Zones of Poverty and Affluence in America

In BoBos in Paradise, David Brooks popularized the notion of Latte Towns: “upscale liberal communities, often in magnificent natural settings, often university-based, that have become the gestation centers for America’s new upscale culture.” Charles Murry, in Coming Apart, compiles a list of superzips where the affluent and the educated are concentrated:

Superzips in the United States. Source: Data by Charles Murray, compiled by Gavin Rehkemper.

On the other side of the great divide, we know about endemic poverty in Appalachia and, of course, the Deep South. Much of the doomed cohort analyzed by Case and Deaton is concentrated in these poverty belts.

Combined and uneven development has left America regionally polarized. This affects the politics of the nation and the country’s cohesiveness as a society. To better understand the challenges, it is important to map the regional polarization of America.

Before we come to the maps, a basic question needs to be considered. The affluent are concentrated in the superzips and the poor in the poverty belts, but what about the rest? Surely, the bulk of the population lives neither in zones of grinding poverty nor in zones of mass affluence. Are the rest of these zones homogeneous? Or is there internal structure in the middling bulk of America?

In order to answer this question, I looked at county-level socioeconomic data from GeoFRED. I wanted to see if the counties sorted themselves out into natural clusters. It turns out that there are four basic clusters of counties: Affluent, Middle America, Near-Poor, and Poor. These four clusters differ systematically from each other. Moreover, no matter which subset of socioeconomic indicators you use to do the sorting, you obtain very nearly the same clusters.


The Geography of Class in America
Poor Near-Poor Middle America Affluent
College Graduates 12% 16% 23% 37%
Some College 20% 25% 33% 47%
High School Graduates 75% 83% 89% 91%
Median Household Income 34,302 42,787 52,800 73,170
Per Capita Income 31,107 36,226 45,010 64,218
Unemployment rate 7% 6% 4% 4%
Single Parent Households 41% 34% 28% 25%
Inequality (ratio) 16% 13% 12% 13%
Poverty Rate 26% 18% 12% 9%
SubPrime Rate 37% 29% 22% 20%
Youth Idleness Rate 13% 10% 6% 5%
Food Stamps 27% 17% 10% 7%
Crime Rate (per thousand) 10 8 6 6
Population (millions) 23.0 78.5 134.0 80.7
Population share (sample) 7% 25% 42% 26%
No. of counties 582 1,177 1,077 231
Source: GeoFRED, author’s calculations.

Only 231 out of 3,067 counties can be classified as affluent. But they contain 81 million people, or a quarter of the US population. The median household income in these counties is 73,170. In affluent counties, 91 percent of adults have a high school diploma and 37 percent have college degrees. The poverty rate is 9 percent and only 7 percent of residents rely on food stamps. About a quarter of the families with children are single parent households. Only 5 percent of young adults aged 16-19 are neither studying nor working. The crime rate is low and the unemployment rate is below the national average.

Some 582 out of 3,067 counties can be classified as poor. They are home to 23 million people, or 7 percent of the US population. The median household income is 34,302; less than half that of the affluent counties. A quarter of adult residents in these counties lack a high school diploma and only 12 percent have college degrees. More than a quarter of residents fall below the poverty line and 27 percent rely on food stamps for survival. Some 41 percent of families with children are single parent households and 13 percent of young adults are neither studying nor working. The crime rate is high and the unemployment rate is above the national average.

The vast of bulk of US counties, 74 percent, are neither affluent nor poor. They contain 212 million people, almost exactly two-thirds of the US population. Of these 2,254 counties, 1,177 are near-poor. They are home to 78 million people, or 25 percent of the population. On almost any socioeconomic indicator, these counties are closer to the poor counties than the affluent ones.

Finally, there are 1,077 moderately affluent counties in Middle America. This is where the middling bulk of the US population—42 percent—lives. They are home to 134 million people, which is more than the population of Japan or Mexico. There is a significant gap in incomes and college graduation rates between moderately affluent and affluent counties. But on other socioeconomic indicators, they are not far apart.

Although affluent counties are sprinkled throughout the country, coastal United States is home to all multi-county clusters of mass affluence. A vast zone of affluence stretches across the northeastern seaboard, from the suburbs of DC all the up to Vermont.

Eastern zone of affluence

Inside this eastern zone of affluence there are two major clusters. One is centered around New York City. It is the richest, most populous cluster of counties in the United States. The City’s per capita income is nearly a hundred and sixty thousand dollars.

NYC zone of affluence

The second is centered on Washington, DC. The two suburban counties of Fairfax and Prince William are brown because GeoFRED does not have data on them. Both are easily affluent. According to the 2010 census, the median household incomes of Fairfax and Prince William counties were 105,416 and 91,098 respectively.

DC zone of affluence

The Western zone of affluence is centered on San Francisco and comparable in affluence to the DC area. It obeys the same distance decay law that characterizes the eastern zones of affluence: The closer one gets to the leading city the more affluent the area. Note that Marin County has a higher per capita income than San Francisco itself. Both have per capita incomes in six figures—a property shared by only 13 counties in the entire United States.

Western zone of affluence

On to the other side of the ledger. There are some counties in the Western United States with high poverty rates. But these counties are sparsely populated. Because they are geographically large, national maps provide a misleading picture to the naked eye. The exception is the cluster of high poverty rate counties in Arizona and New Mexico. At the center of the cluster of three dark-hued counties that visually dominate the map is Apache County, Arizona. (The narrow strip that runs north-south along the Arizona-New Mexico border.) Only 10 percent of Apache residents have a college degree; 26 percent don’t even have a high school diploma. Some 37 percent of residents are below the poverty line and rely on food stamps. Per capita income in the county is just shy of thirty thousand dollars. Nearly half the families with children are single parent households. An astonishing 55 percent of county residents have a credit score below 660, meaning that they are considered subprime.

Western poverty

Big multi-county clusters of widespread poverty are concentrated in the southeastern United States. There is a vast poverty belt stretching across the Deep South and another big cluster in Appalachia. You can walk a thousand miles from Texas to the eastern seaboard—say from Marion County, TX, to McIntosh County, GA—without stepping foot in any county with a poverty rate below 20 percent.

Eastern poverty

Kentucky has its own zone of wrenching poverty centered at Owsley County. In the map it is the one in the northern cluster of dark counties (where the poverty rate is more than 30 percent) that is surrounded on all sides by other dark counties. Here, 38 percent of the residents fall below the poverty line. The median household income is a mere 23,047. Only 11 percent of adults are college graduates and 41 percent lack a high school diploma. An astounding 55 percent of county residents rely on food stamps.

We have only scratched the surface of regional socioeconomic polarization in the United States. I will report again when I have more substantial results.

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