The Local Nature of Prosperity

The United States is a world leader, ranking 18th out of 167 nations on prosperity. However, the U.S. Prosperity Index reveals that prosperity is distributed very unevenly across states and counties and among different groups in society.


Just as states vary in their levels of prosperity, the distribution of prosperity among counties in each of the 12 selected states included in the 2021 County-level Index also varies significantly. Across some states, counties share very similar levels of prosperity. In Nebraska (14th), for example, 58 of its 93 counties are in the 1st quintile and the remainder are in the 2nd quintile. In Oklahoma (47th), no counties appear in the 1st – 3rd quintiles and there are only 10 counties in the 4th quintile, with the remaining 67 in the 5th quintile. Conversely, across California (25th), there is much greater variation, with four counties appearing in the 1st quintile and seven counties appearing in the 5th quintile, and the remaining 48 counties appearing in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quintiles. For example, Marin County, one of the nine counties in the Bay Area of California, is the 2nd most prosperous county in the state and in the 1st quintile in the county-level Index, whereas Mendocino County, one county but one up the coast from Marin County, ranks 44th in the state’s county rankings and lies within the 4th quintile overall.

Local Nature of Prosperity Fig 1

Across some of the other selected states, counties exhibit marked variations in their levels of prosperity. Florida (31st), Texas (33rd), Montana (34th), and Georgia (37th), all have counties with a wide range of performance, lying within each of the five quintiles, and even in Kentucky (43rd), there are six counties in the 2nd quintile and nearly a third in the middle quintile. Interestingly, most of the weaker counties in Kentucky are in the Appalachian region in the southeastern corner. In addition to assessing the performance of counties within and across states, the Index also enables exploration of the performance of different types of counties, urban and rural for example, using the U.S. Census Bureau’s classification.

On the whole, urban counties perform more strongly than rural counties, although the exact nature of how prosperity is comprised varies across the two area types. For example, urban counties generally exhibit a stronger economic performance (especially infrastructure) and social wellbeing such as education and health, whereas rural counties have lower crime rates and stronger social networks. The more prosperous propensity of urban counties is not universally true; urban Nassau County (New York), with a population density of over 4,500 people per square mile, is roughly as prosperous as rural Mineral County (Colorado), which has fewer than one person per square mile.


Location alone does not capture all the differences in prosperity. The most powerful and effective solutions will be realized when not only the disparities in prosperity at the local level are understood, but also those between different groups in society. Consider education, for example. Nationally, among those without
college education, a Black American was nearly twice as likely as a White American to be unemployed (15.4% vs. 8.4%). Even with a degree, Black Americans are over 50% more likely to be unemployed than White Americans. In addition, over 17% of people in the most ethnically diverse counties avoided medical care due to the cost, compared to 14% in the least ethnically diverse counties. Policies that seek to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged Americans can benefit from being sensitive to these differences and their underlying causes.

How these national patterns are experienced at a local level is therefore important. For example, the infant mortality rate for African American mothers in Los Angeles County is three times the rate of White mothers, whereas in less urban Solano County, it is closer to twice the rate. Our county-level Index enables an initial assessment of how prosperity and its characteristics vary depending on the ethnic diversity of urban and rural counties, using population estimates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention by ethnic group in each of the 1,196 counties across the 12 selected states.

Across the 12 states many rural counties in Georgia, Eastern Texas and Northern Florida have the highest share of people from a Black and African American background, and in urban counties the largest shares are to be found in and around large cities, including San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta and New York. The table below illustrates the groupings of Black population share for urban and rural areas and shows the number of resulting counties in each of the eight groupings. The prosperity characteristics of these different areas can be investigated to provide a richer understanding.

Local Nature of Prosperity Fig 2

Place matters, but so does the demography of each place. Developing a clear understanding of the prosperity of each state and county and the challenges they face, particularly in relation to ethnicity and racial equity, and the opportunities that are presented is crucial to developing the most effective targeted solutions. The Index enables the strengths and weaknesses of each state and county to be clearly identified, which, alongside other data, can elicit greater insight about the demographic make-up of these places, to assess differences in the performance of different socio-economic groups. In future reports we will be providing richer insight into these types of issues, enabling a greater understanding of place- based prosperity, including the extent to which prosperity is shared across all communities in a place. This is important to create a more prosperous America for all Americans.

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