Special Report

America's Richest (and Poorest) Cities

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.

Click here to see the 10 richest cities

Click here to see the 10 poorest cities

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.

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