Census Bureau Data: Richest Counties Get Richer, Poorest Get Poorer

Kentucky has county with lowest median household income. Richest three in Va.

December 16, 2010, 4:22 PM

Dec. 19, 2010 — -- The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, at least judging by the most extreme neighborhoods for median household income in the latest Census Bureau data.

The census' American Community Survey, released last week, provides detailed neighborhood data, including languages spoken in a home, commute time and income levels.

The poorest county, Owsley County, Ky., had the lowest median household income outside of Puerto Rico. Its median income decreased to $18,869 from $20,346 in 2000. Of all the county or county equivalents, Falls Church, Va. had the highest median income, at $113,313, an increase from $96,449 in 2000.

Virginia also was home to the counties with the three highest median household incomes, and the only counties with median household incomes greater than $100,000. Fairfax County had a $104,259 median household income, and Loudoun County had one of $112,021.

The data came from surveys which were mailed to about 3 million addresses from January 2005 through December 2009. The Census Bureau's official 2010 census demographic data, which provide less detail on the neighborhood level, will be released on Dec. 21.

Those who are curious about their own neighborhoods can visit http://factfinder.census.gov, though not all county data on that website has been updated since 2000.

Cale Turner, county executive of Owsley County, Ky., said he was not surprised that Owsley once again was one of the poorest areas of the country, in part because of drug addiction.

"Those with drug addictions end up in prison without effective treatment," said Turner. "And it happens over and over in this community. The drug problem continues to get worse every year."

Turner said the lack of resources and insurance makes it difficult for addicts to obtain effective, long-term treatment.

"They're coming out of prison still addicted to drugs, and there's still little hope for them," said Turner.

The Owsley County population, with a median age of 40.6 years, according to Census Bureau data, has a large retired community and few jobs available.

The county has a population of 4,648 and an average commute time of 19.7 minutes, according to the Census Bureau.

But Vince Turner, president of the community organization Owsley County Outreach, said most people commute about one hour to the nearest large city, Richmond, Ky., to find work.

"I think it's important to emphasize it's about jobs," said Vince Turner, who is not related to Cale Turner. "People are good people. They would work if they could work. But the ability to work is not here."

Vince Turner said Owsley County was a coal mining and lumbering community at its peak, but people since have left to find work elsewhere. His organization runs a thrift store and raises money to provide meals for students in the Owsley County school system.

"The situation is sad but it's still a very proud community," Vince Turner said.

In terms of income levels, Owsley is the complete opposite of Loudoun County, Va., and Falls Church, Va., an independent city, whose residents often work in the government sector near the nation's capital.

The mayor of Falls Church, Va., Nader Baroukh, said the town's small jurisdiction and its strong education levels may be driving the income levels. He pointed out the percentage of the population over 25 years old that has a bachelor's degree, 69.5 percent according to the Census Bureau, is one of the highest in the nation.

Baroukh added that Falls Church was an ideal location for businesses.

"The city of Falls Church has a lot to offer given its location to near two metro stations, very good access to major transportation routes and very good accessibility to two major airports, Dulles and Reagan," Baroukh said.

Tim Hemstreet, county administrator of Loudoun, said his county income levels have been in the upper range for the past decade and therefore he was not surprised by the census data. He agreed that education and the county's proximity to federal agencies and contractors were main components to the high income levels.

"We also have a very good education system, a lot of access to higher education, and a highly skilled workforce," said Hemstreet.

Economists and urban planners are combing through the new data, which is an update since the Census Bureau's 2000 census. This data has a smaller margin of error from the time the Community Survey began in 2005.

Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist of Key Private Bank, said the data showed that the effects of the recession were hardest on the poorest areas.

"It was the bottom ranks that really showed the major change," said McCain. "This has been a very deep and hard recession."

He said the largest percentage increase in income data was in Kalawao County, Hawaii, whose median household income increased to $52,813 from $ 12,014. Though McCain acknowledged that could be a statistical error.

Ezra Glenn, a lecturer with MIT's Urban Studies and Planning Department, said the questions in the survey were not new, but more current data would be very useful for researchers in community development.

"If you look at say, New England, where things change relatively slowly, it can get quite a lot of development, or a population can get a lot older, in a 10-year period," said Glenn.

Glenn said economic and population figures are important for issues such as affordable housing and transportation planning.

"These are the kinds of things a planner would need to know. You can't do this overnight," he said. "You have to plan at least five years ahead of time. The more current our data is, the better we'll all be."

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