Friday, March 9, 2012

Income inequality at the county level: a (very partial) rural-urban comparison

The U.S. Census Bureau released this report yesterday, based on the 2010 Census, and the New York Times features this item by Catherine Rampell on its Economix blog today. At first glance at the Census Bureau map charting levels of income equality, it looks like a lot of the counties with relatively low income inequality are nonmetropolitan. But I see that some of those with the greatest income inequality are, too. Among the latter are counties that represent the rural gentrification phenomenon. One of those is Pitkin County, Colorado, home of Aspen, which has the fourth highest household income level in the country. (Pictured above is the Pitkin County Jail; in Aspen, even the jail appears salubrious!). Pitkin County's population is just 17,148, and its poverty level is quite low, at 8.4%. The county's per capita income (2006-2010) was $64,381, which wikipedia proclaims as the fourth highest among the nation's counties.

Rampell highlights these findings regarding county population size based on the Census Bureau report.
The most equitable distribution of income was in Loving County, Tex--then nation's least populous county, with fewer than 100 residents--with a Gini value of 0.207.

Generally speaking, many of the counties with more equitable distributions had small populations, or happened to be "a fast-growing county containing commuter towns within a large metropolitan area," according to the report's author, [Adam] Bee.
For comparison sake, I note that Loving County, Texas, has a per capita income of $42,220 and a 0% poverty rate. Loving County is in west Texas and oil wealth may help explain its relative affluence because the median household income among Loving County's 50 housing units is a robust $83,889, which is more than 20% higher than Pitkin County, Colorado's median household income: $64,502 among the county's 13,000 housing units.

An impoverished nonmetropolitan county with an even higher rate of income inequality than Pitkin County, Colorado is East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, in the Mississippi Delta. Indeed, East Carroll Parish has the greatest income inequality of any county in the nation. With just 7,759 residents, the Parish is a 7 on the rural-urban continuum (with 9 being the most rural). Its poverty rate is a whopping 40.8%, and the per capita income is just $15,947. The median household income is $24,038. East Carroll Parish is 69% black, and I bet most of the wealthy there are among the minority white population.

Whoever the "rich" folks are in East Carroll Parish, they would probably look downright needy if you set them down in Pitkin County. Indeed, comparing these two local government units' economic data, you get a stark illustration of income inequality across counties (and regions), which should surely attract as much attention as income inequality within the local government unit.

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