Comparing the Wealth of U.S. Geographic Regions Over Time
The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.
Every year, the average American takes home about $51,600 in personal income.
Of course, what you make each year depends on factors like your job, work ethic, education, and personal circumstances – but it also varies significantly over geography.
The Geographical Wage Gap
Today’s chart uses data from the Brookings Institute, and it focuses on the geographical wage gap, or the difference in per capita income that exists between various U.S. regions.
Interestingly, it’s a gap that has historically narrowed over time.
Just after the Great Depression, income per capita in the Mideast was 50% higher than the average American, and roughly three times higher than in the Southeast. Over the next 50 years, this gap would continue to narrow until reaching its smallest differential by the mid-1980s.
In the last couple of decades, however, the geographical wage gap has shown signs of a potential reversal: per capita incomes in New England, Mideast, and Far West have been increasing relative to the average American wage, while other regions are remaining more stagnant.
The Vitality Index
Wages are just one factor in measuring prosperity, and the Brookings Institute has attempted to create a more well-rounded approach to this with the Vitality Index.
The Vitality Index is comprised of the following variables:
- Median household income – 45%
- Poverty rate – 24%
- Life expectancy – 13%
- Prime-age employment-to-population ratio – 9%
- Housing vacancy rate – 5%
- Unemployment rate – 4%
The following map is directly from the aforementioned report, and it shows the Vitality Index by county, using recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau:
Which areas have seen the biggest increases and decreases in vitality?
The Great Lakes region, which relies heavily on manufacturing, has seen the most significant drop between 1980-2016, while the Mideast has seen the biggest rise over that same 26 year period.
Cost of Living
One fair point of objection to the analysis of the Vitality Index – or any measure of economic differences between geographic regions – is that cost of living is not taken directly into account.
Here is what the researchers had to say on this:
It would be reasonable to adjust median household income for cost of living, but we opted to not do this for two reasons. First, cost-of-living estimates that are comparable across places are not available for 1980. Second, cost of living may vary for reasons that are directly related to the county vitality we seek to measure. For example, a place with stronger labor demand or better local public goods could attract in-migration that contributes to higher housing prices. Finally, cost of living may reflect the amenity value of a place, and not simply inflated prices for the same goods and services.
No analysis is perfect, but the Vitality Index and historical data on per capita income are interesting to consider when framing any analysis on wages, prosperity, and economic inequality in America.
This Simple Chart Reveals the Distribution Of Global Wealth
Global wealth at the end of 2020 was about $418 trillion. Here’s a breakdown of the global wealth distribution among the adult population.
The Global Wealth Distribution in One Chart
The pandemic resulted in global wealth taking a significant dip in the first part of 2020. By the end of March, global household wealth had already declined by around 4.4%.
Interestingly, after much monetary and fiscal stimulus from governments around the world, global household wealth was more than able to recover, finishing up the year at $418.3 trillion, a 7.4% gain from the previous year.
Using data from Credit Suisse, this graphic looks at how global wealth is distributed among the adult population.
How is Global Wealth Distributed?
While individuals worth more than $1 million constitute just 1.1% of the world’s population, they hold 45.8% of global wealth.
|Wealth Range||Wealth||Global Share (%)||Adult Population|
|Over $1M||$191.6 trillion||45.8%||Held by 1.1%|
|$100k-$1M||$163.9 trillion||39.1%||Held by 11.1%|
|$10k-$100k||$57.3 trillion||13.7%||Held by 32.8%|
|Less than $10k||$5.5 trillion||1.3%||Held by 55.0%|
|Total||$418.3 trillion||100.0%||Held by 100.0%|
On the other end of the spectrum, 55% of the population owns only 1.3% of global wealth.
And between these two extreme wealth distribution cases, the rest of the world’s population has a combined 52.8% of the wealth.
Global Wealth Distribution by Region
While wealth inequality is especially evident within the wealth ranges mentioned above, these differences can also be seen on a more regional basis between countries.
In 2020, total wealth rose by $12.4 trillion in North America and $9.2 trillion in Europe. These two regions accounted for the bulk of the wealth gains, with China adding another $4.2 trillion and the Asia-Pacific region (excluding China and India) another $4.7 trillion.
Here is a breakdown of global wealth distribution by region:
|Change in Total Wealth |
|Change %||Wealth Per Adult |
India and Latin America both recorded losses in 2020.
Total wealth fell in India by $594 billion, or 4.4%. Meanwhile, Latin America appears to have been the worst-performing region, with total wealth dropping by 11.4% or $1.2 trillion.
Post-COVID Global Outlook 2020-2025
Despite the burden of COVID-19 on the global economy, the world can expect robust GDP growth in the coming years, especially in 2021. The latest estimates by the International Monetary Fund in April 2021 suggest that global GDP in 2021 will total $100.1 trillion in nominal terms, up by 4.1% compared to last year.
The link in normal times between GDP growth and household wealth growth, combined with the expected rapid return of economic activity to its pre-pandemic levels, suggests that global wealth could grow again at a fast pace. According to Credit Suisse estimates, global wealth may rise by 39% over the next five years.
Low and middle-income countries will also play an essential role in the coming year. They are responsible for 42% of the growth, even though they account for just 33% of current wealth.
Mapped: GDP per Capita Worldwide
GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s standard of living. This map showcases the GDP per capita in every country globally.
Mapped: Visualizing GDP per Capita Worldwide
View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.
GDP per capita has steadily risen globally over time, and in tandem, the standard of living worldwide has increased immensely.
This map using data from the IMF shows the GDP per capita (nominal) of nearly every country and territory in the world.
GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s wealth as it provides an understanding of how each country’s citizens live on average, showing a representation of the quantity of goods and services created per person.
The Standard of Living Over Time
Looking at history, our standard of living has increased drastically. According to Our World in Data, from 1820 to 2018, the average global GDP per capita increased by almost 15x.
Literacy rates, access to vaccines, and basic education have also improved our quality of life, while things like child mortality rates and poverty have all decreased.
For example, in 1990, 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty, which was 36% of the world’s population at the time. Over the last 30 years, the number has been steadily decreasing — by 2030, an estimated 479 million people will be living in extreme poverty, which according to UN population estimates, will represent only 6% of the population.
That said, economic inequality between different regions is still prevalent. In fact, the richest country today (in terms of nominal GDP per capita), Luxembourg, is over 471x more wealthy than the poorest, Burundi.
Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita in 2021:
However, not all citizens in Luxembourg are extremely wealthy. In fact:
- 29% of people spend over 40% of their income on housing costs
- 31% would be at risk of falling into poverty if they had to forgo 3 months of income
The cost of living is expensive in Luxembourg — but the standard of living in terms of goods and services produced is the highest in the world. Additionally, only 4% of the population reports low life satisfaction.
Emerging Economies and Developing Countries
Although we have never lived in a more prosperous period, and poverty rates have been declining overall, this year global extreme poverty rose for the first time in over two decades.
About 120 million additional people are living in poverty as a result of the pandemic, with the total expected to rise to about 150 million by the end of 2021.
Many of the poorest countries in the world are also considered Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by the UN. In these countries, more than 75% of the population live below the poverty line.
Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the lowest GDP per capita:
Life in these countries offers a stark contrast compared to the top 10. Here’s a glance at the quality of life in the poorest country, Burundi:
- 80% of the population works in agriculture
- 1 in 3 Burundians are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance
- Average households spend up to two-thirds of their income on food
However, many of the world’s poorest countries can also be classified as emerging markets with immense economic potential in the future.
In fact, China has seen the opportunity in emerging economies. Their confidence in these regions is best exemplified in the Belt and Road initiative which has funneled massive investments into infrastructure projects across multiple African countries.
Continually Raising the Bar
Prosperity is a very recent reality only characterizing the last couple hundred years. In pre-modern societies, the average person was living in conditions that would be considered extreme poverty by today’s standards.
Overall, the standard of living for everyone today is immensely improved compared to even recent history, and some countries will be experiencing rapid economic growth in the future.
GDP per Capita in 2021: Full Dataset
|Country||GDP per Capita (Nominal, 2021, USD)|
|🇺🇸 United States||$66,144|
|Hong Kong SAR||$47,990|
|United Arab Emirates||$32,686|
|Trinidad and Tobago||$16,622|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||$16,491|
|Antigua and Barbuda||$14,748|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||$7,401|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||$6,536|
|West Bank and Gaza||$3,060|
|Papua New Guinea||$2,596|
|Republic of Congo||$2,271|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||$2,133|
|Central African Republic||$522|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||$478|
Editor’s note: Readers have rightly pointed out that Monaco is one of the world’s richest countries in GDP per capita (nominal) terms. This is true, but the IMF dataset excludes Monaco and lists it as “No data” each year. As a result, it is excluded from the visualization(s) above.
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