Where Are The Hardest Places To Live In The U.S.?

July 7, 2014

By: Alan Flippen
Via: The New York Times

Click for interactive version

Click for interactive version


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.

Measuring Recovery? Count The Employed, Not The Unemployed

June 21, 2014

By: Binyamin Appelbaum
Via: The New York Times

South Carolina’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.3 percent in April, lower than in December 2007, when it stood at 5.5 percent on the eve of the Great Recession.

The share of South Carolina adults with jobs, however, has barely rebounded.

As the chart below shows, the same contrast is visible in most states. Unemployment rates, the most familiar and famous of labor market indicators, are nearing pre-recession lows. But the shares of adults with jobs — or employment rates — look much less healthy.

The reason is that the numbers are not quite two sides of a coin. The employment rate counts everyone with a job, while the unemployment rate counts only people actively seeking work. It excludes most people who are unemployed.

After most recessions, the numbers have moved in sync as the share of the population neither working nor looking has remained fairly constant. But after this recession, the middle ground has ballooned as fewer people try to find jobs.

As a result, the employment rate has become the more accurate indicator of the nation’s sluggish and perhaps permanently incomplete economic recovery.

It shows that the economy is improving. Employment rates have climbed above the post-recession nadir in every state, although the improvements are often quite small. In Mississippi, the employment rate is just 0.1 percent above its recent low.

It also shows that the recovery has a long way to go. Employment rates have rebounded in some states with strong growth, like Utah, Nebraska and Montana. But only three states — Maine, Texas and Utah — have retraced more than half their losses.

(Maine is a curiosity. Its economy has expanded less since 2009 than any state’s except Connecticut. Conversely, North Dakota and South Dakota, two of the three states with the most growth over the same period, have seen little recovery in their employment rates — perhaps in part because their losses were relatively small.)

The slow progress hints at a bleak reality. Most economists do not expect employment rates to rebound completely. A growing share of adults is too old to work, because baby boomers are aging into retirement while fewer immigrants are arriving to take their places in the work force. The share of workers claiming disability benefits, or retiring early, also increased sharply in recent years.

Story Maps Illustrate Metro Area And County Population Change

June 11, 2014

Via: The Census Bureau

The Census Bureau [recently] released two interactive thematic maps on population change.

These ‘Story Maps’ provide insight on emerging trends in population change across the country,” said Jason Devine of the Census Bureau’s Population Division.



The first map allows data users to explore the difference a decade has made in patterns of population change in metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas across the country. This is possible through swiping between two interactive maps – one covering the 2002-2003 period, the other 2012-2013.

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau



The second map permits users to determine the extent of population growth in each county between 2012 and 2013, and to quickly identify the primary source of that population change (such as natural increase or net migration).

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau

America’s Biggest Metros Are Growing Much Faster Than Other Cities

April 1, 2014

By: Richard Florida
Via: The Atlantic Cities

Cyclists on a hike and bike trail in Austin, Texas, the large metro with the fastest population growth rate from 2010 to 2013 (Reuters/Julia Robinson).


America’s biggest metros are getting bigger, accounting for a disproportionate share of U.S population growth, according to new population estimates covering the period up to July 2013, released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

While most of the initial coverage of the report has focused on the year-long period from July 2012 through July 2013, I decided to look at the trends over the longer 2010-2013 period, which more or less coincides with the economic recovery. With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I examined the rate of population growth across five key categories of metro size. (See the chart below).


The pattern is striking. Large metros (those with more than a million people) registered the fastest growth by far, 3.2 percent. This explosive growth, in large part due to their capacity to attract immigrants, is considerably better than the 2.4 percent growth rate for the U.S. as a whole. Medium size metros, those with between 500,000 and a million people, grew just a bit faster than the nation as a whole, at 2.5 percent. Metros with between 350,000 and 500,000 people grew at slightly below the national rate, 2.3 percent, while metros with less than 250,000 people grew at just 1.7 percent. And the nation’s smallest geographic units, its 536 micropolitan areas, grew on average just 0.2 percent. More than half of them (286) saw their populations either decline or register no increase whatsoever between 2010 and 2013.

And when we zoom in on which of these specific metros that are gaining and losing population, it’s clear that America’s new geography is increasingly defined by the two pillars of recovery – knowledge and energy – that I initially defined in a piece for the Atlantic this fall.

Of large metros, Austin – a leading knowledge and tech hub – saw the largest percentage increase in population, growing by 9.7 percent between 2010 and 2013. Raleigh, an anchor of the North Carolina Research Triangle, grew 7.4 percent. Houston, San Antonio, Orlando, Denver, and Dallas each grew 6 percent or more.

Some of the fastest growing areas of the country were in the energy belt stretching from Texas up through the Dakotas. Midland and Odessa, Texas; Bismarck and Fargo, North Dakota; and Casper, Wyoming all saw 2010 to 2013 population growth rates of 7 percent or higher. College towns like Auburn, Alabama; Provo, Utah; Durham, North Carolina; and Boulder, Colorado also registered gains at more than twice the national average.

On the flip side, Rustbelt metros continue to see population stagnate or in some cases even decline slightly. Cleveland and Buffalo saw the slowest population growth of large metros, losing small numbers of people, while population virtually stagnated in Detroit, Providence, Pittsburgh, Hartford and Rochester. Pittsburgh and Cleveland saw small population losses in the more recent 2012-13 period.

Once booming Sunbelt metros, where populations exploded alongside suburban sprawl in previous decades, saw their population growth slow substantially from 2010 to 2013. Las Vegas grew by 85 percent in the 1990s, making it America’s fastest growing, and more than 40 percent in the 2000s. But Vegas saw its population growth slow to 3.9 percent between 2010 and 2013, placing it 75th among all metros. Phoenix, which grew by 45 percent in the 1990s (and where population growth topped 4 percent a year for nearly four decades), saw its population growth rate decline to 4.9 percent in 2010-13, leaving it 49th of all metros.

All told, 40 percent of U.S metros (156 of 383) saw their populations grow faster than the national average, while 51 metros grew at twice the national rate, and 13 metros grew at three times the national rate. Seventy-two metros lost population over this period, most of them smaller metros in the Rustbelt and old South.

America continues to see population growth around the twin pillars of its knowledge-energy economy. Many hard hit industrial metros of the Rustbelt continue to stagnate or decline, and the growth of the sprawling, housing-driven metros of the Sunbelt has slowed considerably from the boom years.

Most of all, size clearly seems to matter. America’s biggest metros registered not only the largest absolute increases but also the largest percent gains.

Trends in Higher Education

November 4, 2013

Via: The College Board

Two new studies prepared by the College Board explore the benefits of higher education. These studies not only examine the payoffs to individuals and society, but address the challenges in obtaining higher education, as well as the disparity of achievement and outcomes across different demographics.

Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society documents the ways in which both individuals and society as a whole benefit from increased levels of education. The report examines differences in the earnings and employment patterns of U.S. adults with different levels of education. It compares health-related behaviors, reliance on public assistance programs, civic participation, and indicators of the well-being of the next generation. Financial benefits are easier to document than nonpecuniary benefits, but the latter may be as important to students themselves, as well as to the society in which they participate. In addition to the financial and nonpecuniary benefits of higher education, Education Pays 2013 examines the increases and the persistent disparities across demographic groups in college participation and completion. Read more . . .



How College Shapes Lives: Understanding the Issues builds on the information presented in Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society by discussing some of the ways in which the payoff of postsecondary education can be measured and providing insights into why there is confusion about that payoff, despite strong evidence. The report focuses on the variation in outcomes across individuals, helping to clarify that the existence of a high average payoff and the reality of significant benefits for most students are not inconsistent with disappointing outcomes for some. The aim of this report is to provide background and context for readers to help them become more active and constructive participants in discussions of the role of higher education in the United States. Read more . . .

Why the Size of Your City’s Middle Class Matters Even if You’re Not In It

September 6, 2013

By: Emily Badger
Via: The Atlantic Cities


Earlier this summer, economists at Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley released a widely discussed study showing that a child’s chances of escaping poverty depends heavily on the luck (or misfortune) of where he or she lives. Some U.S. cities seem to create, or enable, more opportunity than others for economic mobility. A poor child raised in Atlanta faces much longer odds of growing up to be middle-class than a poor child raised in Salt Lake City.

So what’s the difference between Salt Lake City and Atlanta? The authors of the original study highlighted a few strong correlations: Metropolitan areas with more two-parent households, higher quality schools, and lower racial and economic segregation were associated with higher economic mobility. But researchers at the Center for American Progress have taken up the same dataset used in that study and now added another wrinkle: Among the 100 largest metro regions in the country, places with higher economic mobility also tend to have a larger middle class.

In a chart, this is what that relationship looks like:


As authors Ben Olinksy and Sasha Post note, the size of a region’s middle class is strongly linked to the likelihood that a poor child may grow up to join it:

“Specifically, the data suggest that for every percentage-point increase in the share of a region’s population who fall between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile of the national household income distribution, children who begin at the 25th percentile of the income distribution will climb up nearly half a percentile. So if one city’s middle class is 10 percentage points larger than another’s, we would expect that its low-income children will grow up to earn incomes that put them 5 percentiles higher in the national distribution.

For example, imagine a city in which 40 percent of the population is in the middle class. According to the data, a child who begins in the 25th income percentile could expect to reach the 37th percentile when he or she turns 30. But if the city’s middle class were larger, say, 50 percent instead of 40 percent, then a low-income child could expect to end up in the 42nd percentile, making around $26,000 a year instead of $22,000 a year. That’s almost $4,000 in additional income—a 17 percent increase.”


It’s important to note that the causal relationship here is unclear, as Jim Tankersley does a good job of explaining at the Washington Post. Does the middle class get bigger because economic mobility allows previously poor people to join those ranks? Or do poor people have higher economic mobility because a broad middle class drives opportunity for everyone? A large middle class, for instance, might support a stronger school system, which in turn benefits the lower-income students who attend it.

This study can’t answer this key causal question. But it does suggest that if you’re poor and raising a child, you might be better off in the cities at the upper right-hand corner of that distribution shown above.

There are also some interesting caveats in the analysis:

“Finally, one troubling finding is that few regions of the country with large African American populations have high mobility. In light of this observation and the fact that African Americans have much less economic mobility than other groups, we checked to see whether race might limit the relationship between the middle class and mobility. The results are concerning: In regions with large African American populations, increases in the middle class’s size are linked to smaller increases in mobility than in other regions. This suggests that the middle class’s influence on mobility may be dampened by racial inequities, both social and economic. The size of the middle class is a powerful predictor of mobility, yet its reach is limited by our nation’s troubling legacy of racial inequity.”

This last finding suggests a spatial component to economic mobility (a theme the original Harvard and Berkeley study yielded is as well). If your metropolitan area has a large middle class, but many poor people are racially segregated far away from it – from middle-class schools, middle-class job opportunities, middle-class neighborhoods – how will they reap any benefits associated with it?
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