The Geography of America’s Distressed Communities
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)
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.
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.
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.