The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Each county in the United States, ranked by economic distress

A rooftop covered with solar panels in February at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

More than 52 million Americans live in economically distressed communities wracked by poverty, poor education and declining work opportunities. Most of those communities are  in the South. And people in those communities die an average of five years earlier than their neighbors in more prosperous areas.

Those are among the key findings of a new national ranking of economic distress and prosperity released Monday by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), a bipartisan research and advocacy organization founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker and a small group of investors. The ranking incorporates seven different measures of economic health, including rates of education, housing vacancy, workforce participation, poverty, income, employment and new business creation.

The EIG considers communities to be distressed if they score in the bottom fifth of this ranking, and prosperous if they're in the top 20 percent.

“New businesses — or lack thereof — are perhaps the central feature of local well-being,” said Kenan Fikri, an EIG researcher who co-authored the report. Prosperous communities are gaining new businesses  while struggling ones are losing them. This has spillover effects on everything from housing to employment to health.

At the state level, Minnesota (46 percent) and Utah (47.4 percent) lead the nation in the percentage of state residents living in prosperity. In West Virginia, by contrast, just 3.1 percent of residents live in prosperity.

 At the county level the data shows a clear pattern, with distressed communities concentrated in the southern half of the country.

But economic distress isn't exclusively a southern phenomenon. While struggling communities in the South tend to be small and rural, the North and Midwest are home to a number of distressed communities that tend to be large industrial hubs.

In Buffalo, for instance, more than 70 percent of the population lives in a distressed Zip code. In Cleveland it's more than 90 percent. In Detroit, 99 percent.

But Rust Belt aside, the report finds a close link between community size and prosperity. “Counties with under 100,000 people are 11 times more likely to be distressed than counties with more than that many people,” said Fikri. “Dense clusters of economic activity make it significantly easier to secure a high baseline level of well-being.”

There's considerable difference within counties, at the level of Zip codes. Alameda County in California is home to both Berkeley and Oakland. It's “one of the most prosperous counties in the country on the surface,” Fikri said, “but even it still contains over 150,000 people living in some of the nation’s worst-off communities.”

The Zip code-level data shows that suburbs, rather than urban centers, remain the nation's most prosperous communities. “Well-off people still choose to live in suburban communities with their good schools and leafy streets,” Fikri said.

Race remains a major national fault line when it comes to economic well-being. “Minorities represent well over half of the population in distressed Zip codes but only about a quarter of the population in prosperous ones,” Fikri said. Black Americans, in particular, are nearly three times as likely to live in a distressed community as a prosperous one.

Overall, this new map of U.S. prosperity is a complicated one, reflecting regional history as well as rapidly changing local realities. As so many other metrics of social and individual well-being show, geography truly is destiny.