Median household income in the United States remained relatively unchanged between 2011 and 2012, after falling 7% from the start of the recession. While the nation continues to recover based on other measures, it is not exactly encouraging news.
The nation’s largest cities have followed a similar pattern. Income for most of the 366 metropolitan areas measured by the U.S. Census Bureau are flat in the last year, and many are still down significantly compared to 2008. According to the Census Bureau, Brownsville, Texas replaced McAllen, Texas as the country’s poorest metro area. San Jose, Calif. took the top spot as the wealthiest metro area, replacing Washington, D.C. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the metropolitan areas with the highest and lowest median incomes in the U.S.
While income levels and poverty rates are not identical measures, low income and high poverty tend to go hand in hand. All 10 of the poorest metropolitan areas have higher percentages of residents living below the poverty rate, compared to the national figure of 15.9%. In Brownsville, the poverty rate is more than 36%, the highest in the nation.
According to Brookings Institution fellow Elizabeth Kneebone, one of the key determinants of income levels in a city are the kinds of jobs available. This includes jobs in technology, finance, high-skill manufacturing and professional services. Indeed, the wealthiest metropolitan areas have among the highest concentrations of these types of jobs.
Nationally, 10.9% of the population is employed in professional services like scientific and management roles. In places like Washington, D.C., and San Jose, it is much closer to 20% of the population. The low-income cities have far fewer residents in these occupations.
At least due in part to this, low income areas tend to have a much smaller percentage of residents with post-secondary education. Nationally, just under 30% of the adult population has at least a bachelor’s degree. In poorer places like Dalton, Ga., and Lake Havasu, Ariz., barely one in 10 adults have a bachelor’s degree. Conversely, in each of the five wealthiest metro areas, the rate is well over 40%.
For the wealthy cities, Kneebone explained, “It’s like a virtuous cycle: wealthier cities high have the industry and the jobs that attract highly educated workers, and if you have a highly educated workforce, you can attract those types of jobs into the region.” Residents in the poorest cities face the opposite situation.
In the poorest areas, residents are much more likely to be employed in occupations that are low-skill, low-pay and require only modest education.
Not all agree that self-perpetuating poverty is a problem in these cities. Dr. Richard Burkhauser, a professor of public policy at the Cornell University, explained that people are always able to leave these places. “It’s certainly true that if you don’t move around, your chance of getting out of poverty is much tougher than if you move.” However, a major theme in American history is that generations leave poor places and find jobs elsewhere, explained Burkhauser.
While income has not improved significantly in most of the nation’s metropolitan areas, there are exceptions. Notably, San Jose’s median household income grew by roughly $5,000 in a single year. Brookings senior research analyst and associate fellow Alec Friedhoff noted that the city’s improvement isn’t surprising considering it is one of most tech-heavy metro areas in the country. “High tech areas have really bounced back quickly, and San Jose was the one that bounced back the fastest,” he noted.
Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey (ACS), 24/7 Wall St. identified the U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with the highest and lowest median household incomes. Based on Census Bureau treatment, median household income for all previous years is adjusted for inflation. We considered poverty, median home value and health insurance from the Census Bureau’s ACS. We also reviewed unemployment data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment rates listed are full-year averages for 2012 and not monthly rates. All ranks are out of the 366 U.S. metropolitan areas measured in the ACS, except for unemployment rates, which are out of 372 areas measured by the BLS.
These are America’s richest (and poorest) cities.
America’s 10 Richest Cities
10. Napa, Calif.
> Median household income: $68,553
> Population: 139,045 (83rd lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 7.8% (tied-167th highest)
> Poverty rate: 8.9% (tied-8th lowest)
Last year, 8.6% of Napa’s workforce was employed in agriculture or a related industry, one of the higher percentages in the nation. One major reason is likely the area’s wine industry, which gained international recognition and respect following a famous incident in 1976. During the so-called “Judgment of Paris,” several wines from Napa were chosen by a group of judges over French wines. The area is also home to many of the wealthiest Americans. As of last year, 9.5% of Napa area households earned over $200,000 per year, among the highest percentages in the nation. Home values were also quite high, with more than 10% of homes valued at over $1 million as of 2012 — higher than all but a handful of other metro areas.
9. Manchester-Nashua, N.H.
> Median household income: $69,089
> Population: 402,922 (131st highest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.5% (38th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 9.8% (13th lowest)
While most of the nation’s richest cities have a high proportion of exceptionally wealthy households, the Manchester area is notable because so few households are poor. Just 2.1% of all households made less than $10,000 last year, among the lowest percentages in the nation. The city’s poverty rate is similarly low, at just 9.8%, versus nearly 16% nationwide. The Manchester area also has a well-educated population, with more than 37% of adult residents holding at least a bachelor’s degree as of 2012. This was better than over 90% of metro areas nationwide. Overall, New Hampshire’s tax policies have received favorable grades from the Tax Foundation for supporting businesses, since residents do not have to pay any general sales tax or personal income tax on earnings.
8. Honolulu, Hawaii
> Median household income: $71,404
> Population: 976,372 (54th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.2% (29th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 10.3% (17th lowest)
Following the nationwide trend, the median household income in Honolulu fell by nearly $4,000 between 2008 and 2012. In addition, the poverty rate in the city rose from 8.7% in 2008 to 10.3% last year. Housing in the city has remained extremely expensive for residents. According to real estate website Trulia, Honolulu is among the least affordable housing markets for the middle class in the U.S., with less than half of homes for sale considered affordable for that group. Renting was similarly expensive last year, with median gross rent costing nearly $1,500 a month, the second most nationwide. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, as of 2011 Hawaii had the highest prices for consumer goods in the U.S.
7. Anchorage, Alaska
> Median household income: $71,494
> Population: 392,535 (133rd highest)
> Unemployment rate: 6.0% (64th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 8.7% (6th lowest)
As the largest metro area in Alaska, Anchorage is the hub for the state’s communication, transportation, and trade industries. In 2012, over 6.4% of the workforce in Anchorage was employed in transportation, warehousing and utilities, one of the higher percentages in the nation. One of the primary reasons for the state’s relative wealth is its burgeoning oil industry. Alaskan residents receive annual checks from the state based on the earnings of its reinvested oil wealth. This year, qualifying residents will receive $900. Anchorage is an outlier in many respects when compared to many of the wealthiest metro areas. For example, a relatively high proportion of residents are without health insurance.
6. Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, Calif.
> Median household income: $71,517
> Population: 835,981 (64th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 9.0% (85th highest)
> Poverty rate: 11.5% (39th lowest)
Although it is one of America’s wealthiest metro areas, the median household income in the Ventura County area has dropped considerably in recent years. Last year, the median income was $71,517, down from over $76,000 in 2011 and over $81,000 in 2008. However, from 2008 to 2012, the percentage of households in the area with an income over $200,000 did not change significantly. As of last year, 10% of households had incomes exceeding $200,000, versus 5.9% nationwide. The housing market is among the nation’s most expensive for renters, with a median gross rent of more than $1,438 per month last year. Housing in the area is also quite scarce. In 2012, homeowner and rental vacancy rates were both among the lowest in the nation.
5. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, Mass.-N.H.
> Median household income: $71,738
> Population: 4,640,802 (10th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 6.1% (68th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 10.7% (24th lowest)
Compared with other metropolitan areas, the percentage of households earning over $200,000 in the Boston area is among the highest in the nation, at nearly 13%. One reason for this may be residents’ high levels of educational attainment. Last year, nearly 43% of adults over 25 had a college degree, well in excess of the national rate of 29.1%. Also, relatively high percentages of the workforce are involved in high-paying industries like financial services, as well as scientific and professional work — 8.4% and 14.0%, respectively. As of 2012, the Boston area had an unemployment rate of just 6.1%, two percentage points better than the 8.1% national rate, while job growth has picked up in recent years. Further, over 95% of residents have health insurance, one of the highest rates in the nation.
4. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.
> Median household income: $74,922
> Population: 4,455,560 (11th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 8.1% (148th highest)
> Poverty rate: 11.9% (51st lowest)
Last year, the San Francisco area had one of the highest percentages proportions of working residents employed in high-paying professional services fields, at nearly 18%. The area’s highly skilled workforce likely contributed to its exceptionally high median income, which was close to $75,000 last year. Alongside high incomes, however, the area has some of the nation’s steepest housing costs, with median gross rent at nearly $1,400 per month. According to Trulia, no housing market is less affordable than San Francisco, where the middle class could afford to buy just 14% of available homes in October. The cost of living in the city of San Francisco is so high that many would-be residents have elected to move to neighboring Oakland — in turn pushing up housing costs in some neighborhoods there as well.
3. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Conn.
> Median household income: $79,841
> Population: 933,835 (57th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 7.8% (tied-167th highest)
> Poverty rate: 8.9% (tied-8th lowest)
As of 2012, the Bridgeport metro area had one of the highest median incomes in the nation, at close to $80,000. Additionally, nearly 22% of the area’s households made over $200,000, the highest percentage in the nation. Contributing to the Bridgeport area’s wealth, the percentage of residents working in the high-paying finance and professional services sectors were among the highest in the nation last year. But the area also had the nation’s second-highest income inequality, as measured by its Gini index score. While crime and poverty have long been problems in Bridgeport, neighboring cities such as Greenwich are home to some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals.
2. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.-W.Va.
> Median household income: $88,233
> Population: 5,804,333 (7th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 5.6% (46th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 8.4% (4th lowest)
Last year, 17% of households in the Washington, D.C., area had over $200,000 in income, higher than all but two other metro areas. Among the reasons for the area’s high income are a highly skilled workforce, with more than one in every five workers employed in high-paying professional services fields, more than anywhere else in the U.S. In May, The Wall Street Journal noted the area’s economy has expanded beyond government in recent years, and that past federal spending has contributed to the development of a skilled and well-connected professional workforce. Additionally, the Washington, D.C., area population is one of the nation’s most highly educated, with 48.2% of residents holding at least a bachelor’s degree, more than all but a handful of other metro areas.
1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif.
> Median household income: $90,737
> Population: 1,894,388 (32nd highest)
> Unemployment rate: 8.6% (112th highest)
> Poverty rate: 10.8% (28th lowest)
Median income in the San Jose metro area, which constitutes part of Silicon Valley, jumped from $85,736 in 2011 to $90,737 last year. San Jose had among the largest concentrations of high-paying professional services and information jobs in the nation. But the area is not only the wealthiest in the nation, it has also become one of the most-desired housing markets. Just 3.6% of housing units were vacant in 2012, down from 4.9% in 2008, while median gross rent reached $1,560 last year, more than any other metro area in the U.S. Home values also were the highest in the nation, with a median of $624,200. More than 20% of homes in the area were valued at over $1 million.
America’s 10 Poorest Cities
10. Pine Bluff, Ark.
> Median household income: $36,127
> Population: 97,798 (20th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 9.2% (77th highest)
> Poverty rate: 24.4% (17th highest)
The median household income in Pine Bluff was just over $36,000 in 2012, more than $15,000 less than the nationwide median last year. Additionally, more than 24% of residents lived below the poverty level, while the area unemployment rate in 2012 was 9.2% — both above the respective nationwide rates of 15.9% and 8.1%. Further, 9% of Pine Bluff households had less than $10,000 in total income in 2012, among the worst rates in the nation. But not all news out of the area has been negative. According to The Pine Bluff Commercial, reported crimes in the city during the first nine months of 2013 declined by 15% from the same period in 2012.
9. Fort Smith, Ark.-Okla.
> Median household income: $36,061
> Population: 298,110 (159th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 7.7% (176th highest)
> Poverty rate: 22.6% (32nd highest)
Fort Smith has a rich frontier heritage, and has served as the setting for several famous Western movies, including True Grit and Hang Em’ High. However, the reality of Fort Smith today is less glamorous. The area’s median income was barely over $36,000 in 2012, down by more than $5,000 since 2008. Last year the nationwide median was over $51,000. According to The Southwest Times Record, a recent survey showed Fort Smith residents viewed the city’s job market and economy as weaknesses, however, they also cited quality of life as its greatest strength.
8. Cumberland, Md.-W.Va.
> Median household income: $35,645
> Population: 101,968 (26th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 8.0% (155th highest)
> Poverty rate: 16.3% (181st highest)
As of 2012, 6.6% of the U.S. workforce worked in finance, insurance, and real estate related jobs. Nearly 11% worked in the professional and scientific industries. In Cumberland, the percentage of residents employed in these traditionally high-paying jobs was half the national rate. For scientific and professional industries, the percentage of workers decreased significantly from 2008. The area may also lack the educational attainment, on aggregate, needed to attract higher paying jobs. Last year, just over 15% of Cumberland metro area adult residents had a college degree, barely half the national rate of 29.1% and lower than all but a few other metro areas. The proportion of people earning incomes below the poverty line increased from 11.6% in 2008 to 16.3% last year.
7. Monroe, La.
> Median household income: $34,809
> Population: 177,781 (137th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 7.0% (129th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 25.9% (11th highest)
Last year more than one quarter of the Monroe area population lived below the poverty line, one of the highest proportions in the nation. Monroe households were among the most likely in the nation to earn $10,000 per year, as well. As of 2012, 23% of the population was uninsured, one of the highest percentages in the nation. According to a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, since Louisiana has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, 60% of uninsured, non-elderly adults in the state fall into a “coverage gap,” which means that “their income is above current Medicaid eligibility but below the lower limit for Marketplace premium tax credits.”
6. Albany, Ga.
> Median household income: $34,469
> Population: 155,019 (111th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 9.6% (64th highest)
> Poverty rate: 26.9% (8th highest)
Over 12% of households in Albany brought in under $10,000 annually, the second-highest rate in the country, and more than double the national rate. Albany also has among the highest poverty rates in the U.S. Nearly 27% of the population lived below the poverty line last year, well in excess of the national rate of 15.1%. According to a report from WALB in Albany from earlier this year, gang activity is thriving in the city. Albany officials say the problem is related to high unemployment and poverty rates.
5. Lake Havasu City-Kingman, Ariz.
> Median household income: $34,445
> Population: 203,334 (156th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 9.9% (55th highest)
> Poverty rate: 21.7% (44th highest)
The Lake Havasu City area has long been popular with tourists, and is a favorite spring break destination for college students. But the area also had one of the nation’s lowest median incomes in 2012, despite its seasonal popularity. Lake Havasu City’s workforce was heavily concentrated in the low-paying entertainment and accommodation, and retail sectors. Last year, the area’s unemployment rate was close to 10%, well above the nationwide rate of 8.1%. Job growth in the area has also yet to recover from the last decade’s housing downturn and recession. One potential reason for the area’s poor job market may be a lack of formal education among residents. Just 11.2% had at least a bachelor’s degree last year, the lowest percentage in the U.S.
4. Gadsden, Ala.
> Median household income: $34,264
> Population: 104,392 (29th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 7.2% (144th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 21.2% (52nd highest)
One in five workers in Gadsden was employed in manufacturing last year. Residents, however, earn considerably smaller incomes than the nation as a whole. Nearly one in three Americans completed a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education in 2012, while in Gladsden the rate was only 15%. About one quarter of the homes in Gadsden was valued under $50,000 in 2012. Further, between 2008 and last year, median home value dropped by over $20,000.
3. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas
> Median household income: $33,761
> Population: 806,552 (67th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 11.0% (28th highest)
> Poverty rate: 34.5% (2nd highest)
As of 2012, 34.5% of McAllen area residents lived below the poverty line, the second highest percentage in the nation and more than double the national rate of 15.9%. The area also had the nation’s highest percentage of residents without health insurance, at nearly 37%. In 2009, McAllen became a focal point in the national health care debate, due to the area’s extremely high medical costs, in spite of its poor population. However, health care is not the only vital service many residents lack. In 2012, more than 2% of housing units did not have complete plumbing facilities, one of the worst rates in the nation. Finding work was also difficult for many residents, less than 64% of whom had a high school education as of 2012, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Despite decent job growth, the area’s unemployment rate was 11% last year.
2. Dalton, Ga.
> Median household income: $32,858
> Population: 142,751 (87th lowest)
> Unemployment rate: 11.5% (20th highest)
> Poverty rate: 21.6% (46th highest)
No metro area in the U.S. has a higher percentage of workers employed in manufacturing than Dalton, at over 40% last year. The major source of these jobs is the area’s carpet industry — the city of Dalton bills itself as “The Carpet Capital of the Word.” The industry took a hit as the housing market flopped, however, and a large portion of the area’s manufacturing jobs were lost. As of last year, the area’s unemployment rate was 11.5%, one of the highest in the nation. Between 2008 and 2012, median household income fell from $44,847 to less than $33,000. But there has been some good news lately. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Dalton area’s largest carpet manufacturer, Shaw Industries, announced plans to add a new factory and hire more workers as the economy improves.
1. Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas
> Median household income: $30,953
> Population: 415,557 (125th highest)
> Unemployment rate: 10.5% (37th highest)
> Poverty rate: 36.10% (the highest)
Nearly two out of five Brownsville-Harlingen residents were living in poverty as of 2012, the highest rate of the 366 metropolitan areas reviewed. According to PewResearch, Brownsville had one of the largest Hispanic populations in 2012, and the highest rate of poverty among Hispanics in large metropolitan areas, at 40%. Additionally, more than one in three people were living without health insurance that year, the second highest rate in the U.S.. Home values were also low in 2012. Over 26% of homes were worth less than $50,000, about three times more than the median for the U.S., and one of the highest percentages of low-valued homes out of all metropolitan areas.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 42.9% of adults over 25 had a college degree in 2012. In fact, the national rate was 29.1%.
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