America's Poorest Cities

Median household income in the United States declined for the second straight year, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last month. The national median income was $50,502 in 2011, more than 8% below the 2007 pre-recession peak. The country’s largest cities followed the same pattern, with income falling in some cases by more than 10%. Even in the country’s wealthiest metropolitan areas median household income fell in many cases.

Read: America’s Poorest Cities

Read: America’s Richest Cities

What has not changed much is the gulf that separates how much people make, depending on where they live. In McAllen, Tex., the median household earned just $31,077 in 2011. In the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, the median household earned close to three times as much. These differences reflect vastly different economies and demographic makeups. Based on the 2011 Census Bureau American Community Survey, 24/7 Wall St. identified the cities with the highest and lowest incomes.

The biggest factor in determining a city’s income, according to Alex Friedhoff, a Research Analyst at Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program, is the underlying industries that employ the most residents, as well as the type of jobs. High-tech jobs, particularly those related to computers and information technology, tend to pay higher salaries and are more likely to be located in areas with affluent residents. On the other hand, most of the jobs in the lower-income metro areas tend to be in retail, service, agriculture and low-tech manufacturing.

A review of the employment characteristics of the different cities confirms this. Included among the richest cities are the information technology centers of Boston and Boulder, the finance hub of Bridgeport-Stamford, and the San Jose region, better known as Silicon Valley, home to some of the largest chipmakers and computer parts manufacturers in the world. Nationwide, 10.7% of workers are employed in professional, scientific, and management positions. Of the 10 wealthy metro regions, nine have a larger proportion of workers in that sector. In Boulder, 21.9% fall into that category.

In the poorest economies, there is a much higher proportion of low-end manufacturing and retail jobs. In the U.S. as a whole, 11.6% of workers are employed in retail. In the 10 poorest metro areas, eight exceed that number by a wide margin, including Hot Springs, Arkansas, where 17.3% of its workforce is employed in retail.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, explained that these poor areas are seeing an increase in low-wage jobs. “That is something we’ve seen in this recovery. Over the decade, the kinds of jobs we are growing are in lower-skill, low-wage industries like hospitality, food service, and retail. Those are jobs that don’t tend to pay the kinds of wages that the jobs we lost did.”

Other key indicators released for 2011 show the disparity between these rich and poor cities. Poverty rates in some of the poor cities are well above the national rate of 15.3%. In McAllen, Tex., more than 35% of residents lived below the poverty level in 2011. In Washington, D.C., one of the wealthiest cities, just 8.3% of residents lived in poverty.

To identify the U.S. metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, with the highest and lowest median household income, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed city data on income, poverty rate, median home price and health insurance from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey (ACS). Based on Census treatment, median household income for all years is adjusted for inflation. We also reviewed unemployment data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Census Bureau breaks out the data only for the 366 MSAs with 50,000 people or more. All ranks are out of those 366 metropolitan areas, except for unemployment, which is out of 372 areas.

These are America’s poorest cities.
10. Morristown, Tenn.
>Median household income: $35,027
>Population: 137,494 (81st lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 11.0% (52nd highest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 20.0% (68th highest)

Morristown depends on manufacturing, which employed 24.7% of all area workers last year, the eighth-highest percentage of any metropolitan area. In 2010, 20.3% of the workforce worked in the sector. Aside from manufacturing, Morristown has struggled recently. The area’s unemployment rate was 11% last year, down from 11.7% in 2010 but still considerably higher than in 2007 when it was just 5.1%. The area’s median income also fell from $39,850 in 2007 to $35,027 in 2011. The percentage of households that earned in excess of $200,000 a year also fell, from 3.9% to 1.3% during the same time.

9. Cumberland, Md.- W. Va.
>Median household income: $34,819
>Population: 102,884 (28th lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 8.2% (163rd lowest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 19.2% (88th highest)

Between 2007 and 2011, the median income in Cumberland dropped by $3,787 to $34, 819. Yet in the same time period, the median home value rose by 11.5%. In 2011, 10.7% of the area’s homes were valued at less than $50,000, a drop from 13.3% of houses in 2010 and 15.3% of houses in 2007. Despite the increase in home prices, the median home value of $122,300 in the Cumberland area was more than $50,000 less than the median national home price in 2011. Rent is also considerably cheaper in the area than in most cities nationwide. The median rent was just $533, the second-lowest of all metro areas.

Also Read: America’s Poorest States

8. Jonesboro, Ark.
>Median household income: $34,673
>Population: 121,569 (55th lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 7.6% (116th lowest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 22.5% (33rd highest)

From 2007 to 2011, Jonesboro lost over 6,000 jobs, with the total number of workers falling to 48,903. In just the last year, more than 2,500 jobs were lost, while the manufacturing industry’s share of employment fell from 16.3% to 11.8%. As of 2011, the median home price in Jonesboro was just $101,500, while 14.7% of homes were worth less than $50,000. This was actually a significant improvement from 2007, when of 19.2% of homes were worth less than $50,000. The rental market was also quite weak last year when median gross monthly rent was just $601, $270 below the national figure.

7. Hot Springs, Ark.
>Median household income: $34,251
>Population: 97,124 (18th lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 8.3% (173rd lowest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 21.8% (37th highest)

The 2011 median income of Hot Springs residents was $3,137 less than in 2010, a much sharper drop than the country as a whole. The low median income has much to do with the more than 17% of workers that were employed in retail — the fourth-highest of all metro areas and considerably higher than the 11.6% across the country. In 2010, just over 14% of workers were employed in retail. Meanwhile, 6% of the workforce was employed in professional, scientific and management positions in 2011, down from 7% in 2010. The median home value in Hot Springs fell by 6% from 2010 and more than $48,000 below the U.S. median.

6. Monroe, La.
>Median household income: $34,036
>Population: 177,651 (138th lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 7.7% (123rd lowest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 27.9% (8th highest)

While median income across the country dropped by $642 between 2010 and 2011, it plummeted by a whopping $5,434 in the Monroe area. The poverty rate rose an astounding seven percentage points from 2010 to 2011, sitting at just under 28% of the area. In fact, 11.4% of households earned less than $10,000 in 2011, the third-highest percentage of all metro areas. The median home value of $109,900, while in the bottom quintile of all home values in the U.S., rose in 2011 about 2% from 2010 and about 10% from 2007.

5. Gadsden, Ala.
>Median household income: $33,313
>Population: 104,303 (29th lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 9.1% (144th highest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 21.0% (47th highest)

The median household income in the Gadsden area dropped by about $4,500 between 2007 and 2011. Manufacturing is prominent in the region, with more than 17% of Gadsden residents in the labor force working in the industry. The proportion of people working in manufacturing was down from 22% back in 2007. The median home value in the area rose nearly 13% between 2010 and 2011, the fifth-largest growth percentage across all metro areas.

4. Albany, Ga.
>Median household income: $32,775
>Population: 161,617 (122nd lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 10.4% (77th highest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 28.4% (7th highest)

A stunning 11.8% of households in Albany earned less than $10,000 in 2011, the largest percentage of any metropolitan area in the nation. Additionally, 28.4% of Albany residents lived below the poverty level, a considerable increase from the 21.5% who lived in poverty in 2007. The area’s unemployment also jumped, doubling between 2007, when it was just 5.2% of the labor force, to 2011, when it was 10.4%. Last year, the median home value in Albany was just $103,800, or nearly $70,000 less than the U.S. median, while 18.9% of homes were worth less than $50,000.

Also Read: The Most Dangerous Cities in America

3. Valdosta, Ga.
>Median household income: $32,446
>Population: 140,599 (87th lowest)
>Unemployment rate: 9.2%(140th highest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 27.6% (9th highest)

From 2007 to 2011, the unemployment rate in Valdosta increased by 130%, from 4% of workers to 9.2%. The number of employed workers declined by more than 6,000 during that time. Those jobs remaining often pay a lower salary. Last year, nearly 17% of the workforce were employed in the generally low-paying retail industry, the sixth-highest percentage of all metro areas. In 2007, just 11.3% of the labor force worked in retail. Valdosta, however, has an improving and active housing market. Home prices rose nearly 12% between 2007 and 2011. Despite these positives, 14.4% of housing units were vacant last year, higher than the national vacancy rate of 13.1%. Also, 15.3% of homes were worth less than $50,000 versus 8.8% nationwide.

2. Brownsville-Harlingen, Tex.
>Median household income: $32,070
>Population: 414,123 (124th highest)
>Unemployment rate: 11.8% (36th highest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 34.1% (2nd highest)

Brownsville, located in the very southern portion of Texas, has its fair share of economic woes. About 34% of households lived in poverty, the second-highest percentage of all metro areas, and 10.6% of all households earned less than $10,000 a year. More than a third of residents did not have health insurance in 2011, the third-highest rate in the country. Yet the region showed some signs of improvements. While still the second-lowest in the country, median home values rose more than 5% between 2010 and 2011 as values fell or remained nearly flat for the majority of metro areas.

1. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Tex.
>Median household income: $31,077
>Population: 797,810 (68th highest)
>Unemployment rate: 12% (34th highest)
>Pct. households below poverty line: 37.7% (the highest)

While median income fell by $642 across the U.S. between 2010 and 2011, median income in the McAllen area fell by a whopping $3,653 over the same period. More than 37% of the population did not have health insurance, which was the highest percentage of all metro areas in the U.S. The median home value of $77,600, while up more than 11% since 2007, was still the second-lowest among all metro areas in the country. Nearly 29% of all homes were worth less than $50,000, the highest-rate of all metro areas.

-Michael B. Sauter, Alexander E.M. Hess, Sam Weigley

Also Read: America’s Richest Cities

Sponsored: Want to Retire Early? Here’s a Great First Step

Want retirement to come a few years earlier than you’d planned? Or are you ready to retire now, but want an extra set of eyes on your finances?

Now you can speak with up to 3 financial experts in your area for FREE. By simply clicking here you can begin to match with financial professionals who can help you build your plan to retire early. And the best part? The first conversation with them is free.

Click here to match with up to 3 financial pros who would be excited to help you make financial decisions.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us?
Contact the 24/7 Wall St. editorial team.