Special Report

The Best Counties to Live In

Lake Elkhorn, Columbia, Howard County, Maryland
Source: Thinkstock

5. Howard County, Maryland
> 5-yr. population change: +8.9%
> Nov. unemployment rate: 3.0%
> Poverty rate: 5.2%
> Life expectancy at birth: 83.0 years

As is the case with its neighbor, Montgomery County, Howard County residents are among the healthiest, most highly educated, and financially secure in the United States. About 61% of adult residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, making Howard one of only seven U.S. counties with a bachelor’s degree attainment rate that is more than double the comparable national figure.

People with higher educational attainment tend to live longer, healthier lives than those with lower educational attainment, and Howard County fits this trend. Life expectancy at birth in Howard is 83 years, more than four years longer than it is nationwide.

Old Plantation Middleburg Virginia
Source: Thinkstock

4. Loudoun County, Virginia
> 5-yr. population change: +20.4%
> Nov. unemployment rate: 3.2%
> Poverty rate: 4.0%
> Life expectancy at birth: 83.4 years

Loudoun County, Virginia is one of the fastest growing areas in the United States. In the last half decade, the population has increased by more than 20%, five times faster than the comparable 4% national population growth.

A healthy economy and a healthy population are two possible explanations for the rapid growth. Only 3.2% of the area’s labor force are out of a job, well below the 4.6% national unemployment rate. Also, the typical area household earns $123,453 annually, more than any other U.S. county. In addition, life expectancy at birth in Loudoun County is 83.4 years, or 4.5 years longer than the national average.

Tysons Corner, Fairfax County, Virginia
Source: Thinkstock

3. Fairfax County, Virginia
> 5-yr. population change: +7.6%
> Nov. unemployment rate: 3.2%
> Poverty rate: 6.0%
> Life expectancy at birth: 83.8 years

Like many of the healthiest, most highly-educated, and financially secure counties, Fairfax County is located in the Washington D.C. metro area. The typical Fairfax County household earns $112,552 a year, more than double the national median household income.

Many area residents have high-paying jobs with nearby government contractors. Major defense contractor General Dynamics, which received some $13.63 billion in federal dollars in the 2015 government fiscal year, is headquartered within commuting distance of Fairfax County and is one of the area’s largest employers.

Rosslyn, Arlington, Virginia, USA Arlington County, downtown skyline on the Potamac River.
Source: Thinkstock

2. Arlington County, Virginia
> 5-yr. population change: +13.4%
> Nov. unemployment rate: 2.7%
> Poverty rate: 9.0%
> Life expectancy at birth: 82.8 years

Another wealthy Virginia county that is part of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, Arlington reports a median annual household income of close to $106,000 — nearly double the national median income. Arlington is home to a number of high-paid workers employed directly or indirectly by the government. The county’s largest employer is the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security is third. Several consulting firms, which are also more likely to pay well, are among Arlington’s largest employers. Higher-paying jobs in this industry and others tend to require at least a bachelor’s degree, and Arlington has one of the most college-educated populations in the country. While less than 30% of all U.S. adults have a bachelor’s degree, 72.9% of Arlington adults have a college education — the second highest share of any county.

Falls Church, Virginia (Independent City)
Source: Thinkstock

1. Falls Church Independent City, Virginia
> 5-yr. population change: +16.1%
> Nov. unemployment rate: 2.7%
> Poverty rate: 2.7%
> Life expectancy at birth: 82.7 years

Falls Church operates independently of any broader county. Falls Church is relatively small, with a total area of just 2.2 square miles. The 13,000 people who call it home are more likely to be healthy, college educated, and financially secure than residents of any other county or county equivalent in the United States.

The typical area household earns $120,522 a year, well more than double the $53,889 national median income. In addition to a high typical household income, relatively few families experience serious financial hardship. Only 2.7% of area residents live in poverty, a fraction of the 15.5% national poverty rate. Many high earners in Falls Church likely work for government contractors. Some of the biggest employers in northern Virginia include Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing, and General Dynamics — which are some of the largest defense contractors nationwide.