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The Geography of America’s Distressed Communities

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Despite a recent slump in the markets, the U.S. economy is still putting up strong numbers. Unemployment is at its lowest point since the 1960s, and the U.S. manufacturing sector is thriving.

Looking beyond these big picture gains, many communities in the United States are struggling. Check cashing stores outnumber McDonald’s locations, the opioid epidemic rages on, and tens of millions are living in poverty around the country. It’s becoming more clear that the recovery from the financial crisis has been highly uneven.

The Data Behind Distress

To understand the disconnect between struggling counties and a high-flying national economy, researchers at the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) created the Distressed Communities Index:

 

To calculate the “health” of communities around the country, the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) looked at everything from vacancy rates to median income ratios. When visualized, a picture emerges of an America divided into superstar regions and broad expanses of struggling communities.

Distressed and prosperous ZIP codes […] represent two almost diametrically opposed experiences of living in the United States.

– Distressed Communities Index Report (2018)

Community Quintiles

When communities are divided into quintiles, stark patterns emerge. In the most distressed zip codes, over 40% of “prime-age” adults are unemployed, one-in-five adults did not graduate high school, and the housing vacancy rate is nearly double the U.S. average.

DCI quintiles chart

As well, deaths related to substance abuse and mental illness are 64% higher in distressed communities.

Struggling States and Cities

The DCI data reveals that those living in the lower half of the United States are more likely to call a distressed community home. In Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia, one-third or more of the population resides in the bottom quintile of zip codes.

distressed communities states map

On the flip side, in Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Utah well over 40% of the population live in prosperous zip codes.

Zooming in beyond the state-level, a geographical trend becomes clear: many of the struggling communities in the index are classified as rural. Between 2007 and 2016, nearly a third of all rural zip codes were considered “downwardly mobile”, compared to only 16% of those in urban areas.

Though rural zip codes tend to fare worse than their more urban counterparts, there are exceptions to that trend. One example is Bakersfield, California, where almost half of the city’s population lives in a distressed community.

DCI cities map

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Charted: Who Has Savings in This Economy?

Older, better-educated adults are winning the savings game, reveals a January survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

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A cropped chart visualizing the percentage of respondents to the statement “I have money leftover at the end of the month” categorized by sentiment, age, and education qualifications.

Who Has Savings in This Economy?

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Two full years of inflation have taken their toll on American households. In 2023, the country’s collective credit card debt crossed $1 trillion for the first time. So who is managing to save money in the current economic environment?

We visualize the percentage of respondents to the statement “I have money leftover at the end of the month” categorized by age and education qualifications. Data is sourced from a National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) report, published last month.

The survey for NEFE was conducted from January 12-14, 2024, by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. It involved 1,222 adults aged 18+ and aimed to be representative of the U.S. population.

Older Americans Save More Than Their Younger Counterparts

General trends from this dataset indicate that as respondents get older, a higher percentage of them are able to save.

AgeAlways/OftenSometimesRarely/Never
18–2929%33%38%
30–4436%27%37%
45–5939%23%38%
Above 6049%28%23%
All Adults39%33%27%

Note: Percentages are rounded and may not sum to 100.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those aged 60+ are the age group with the highest percentage saying they have leftover money at the end of the month. This age group spent the most time making peak earnings in their careers, are more likely to have investments, and are more likely to have paid off major expenses like a mortgage or raising a family.

The Impact of Higher Education on Earnings and Savings

Based on this survey, higher education dramatically improves one’s ability to save. Shown in the table below, those with a bachelor’s degree or higher are three times more likely to have leftover money than those without a high school diploma.

EducationAlways/OftenSometimesRarely/Never
No HS Diploma18%26%56%
HS Diploma28%33%39%
Associate Degree33%31%36%
Bachelor/Higher Degree59%21%20%
All Adults39%33%27%

Note: Percentages are rounded and may not sum to 100.

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, earnings improve with every level of education completed.

For example, those with a high school diploma made 25% more than those without in 2022. And as the qualifications increase, the effects keep stacking.

Meanwhile, a Federal Reserve study also found that those with more education tended to make financial decisions that contributed to building wealth, of which the first step is to save.

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