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By: Alan Flippen
Via: The New York Times
Annie Lowrey writes in the Times Magazine this week about the troubles of Clay County, Ky., which by several measures is the hardest place in America to live.
The Upshot came to this conclusion by looking at six data points for each county in the United States: education (percentage of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree), median household income, unemployment rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity. We then averaged each county’s relative rank in these categories to create an overall ranking.
(We tried to include other factors, including income mobility and measures of environmental quality, but we were not able to find data sets covering all counties in the United States.)
The 10 lowest counties in the country, by this ranking, include a cluster of six in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky (Breathitt, Clay, Jackson, Lee, Leslie and Magoffin), along with four others in various parts of the rural South: Humphreys County, Miss.; East Carroll Parish, La.; Jefferson County, Ga.; and Lee County, Ark.
We used disability — the percentage of the population collecting federal disability benefits but not also collecting Social Security retirement benefits — as a proxy for the number of working-age people who don’t have jobs but are not counted as unemployed. Appalachian Kentucky scores especially badly on this count; in four counties in the region, more than 10 percent of the total population is on disability, a phenomenon seen nowhere else except nearby McDowell County, W.Va.
Remove disability from the equation, though, and eastern Kentucky would still fare badly in the overall rankings. The same is true for most of the other six factors.
The exception is education. If you exclude educational attainment, or lack of it, in measuring disadvantage, five counties in Mississippi and one in Louisiana rank lower than anywhere in Kentucky. This suggests that while more people in the lower Mississippi River basin have a college degree than do their counterparts in Appalachian Kentucky, that education hasn’t improved other aspects of their well-being.
As Ms. Lowrey writes, this combination of problems is an overwhelmingly rural phenomenon. Not a single major urban county ranks in the bottom 20 percent or so on this scale, and when you do get to one — Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit — there are some significant differences. While Wayne County’s unemployment rate (11.7 percent) is almost as high as Clay County’s, and its life expectancy (75.1 years) and obesity rate (41.3 percent) are also similar, almost three times as many residents (20.8 percent) have at least a bachelor’s degree, and median household income ($41,504) is almost twice as high.