Counties With Cash

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As April ushers in the tax season, it seemed like a good time to investigate where America's wealth is concentrated these days.

There are numerous ways to gauge wealth, from household income to median home value. But only one measure, per-capita income, indicates the amount of money available for each person to spend. Data provided by Washington, D.C.-based market research firm Woods & Poole Economics, Inc. was used to create our map that illustrates the distribution of per-capita income by county. The 50 counties with the highest per-capita income - shown in light green - range from $37,995 per person in Union County, New Jersey, to $69,157 in New York, New York (1). The national average is $28,309.

The heaviest concentrations of wealth are found in and around New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. In fact, 20 of the top 50 counties are clustered around one of these three metro areas - ten in New York City, five in San Francisco, and five in D.C. As our map shows, there is plenty of wealth scattered throughout the country, mostly in major metropolitan areas.

But not all major metros have a county in the money: Las Vegas, Miami, Houston, and Salt Lake City are four that don't make the cut.

What gives? Factors such as the percent of the population employed by the service sector, percent of retirees, household size, and urban landscape all play a role, says Martin Holdrich, senior economist at Woods & Poole. The economy of Las Vegas (2), for example, is driven by the service sector, which pays less than any other industry. "Unless, there is growth in the other sectors, Las Vegas counties will not be in the top 50," says Holdrich. Other cities affected by a high percentage of service workers are Reno, Honolulu, and Orlando.

Retirement counties also tend to rank lower on the wealth scale because typically, retiree incomes are low. "Retired persons do have income, but the flow of dollars going through their households annually is much lower than it was when they were working," says Holdrich. Phoenix, Tucson, Miami, and their surrounding counties are all affected in part by the retirement factor.

Another thing to consider in places like Phoenix, Tucson, and Miami is immigration. Immigrants tend to be younger and work in the service sector - a double whammy where income is concerned.

Immigrant households are also typically larger than those of non-immigrants. "Income per capita is biased against places with large families," says Holdrich. That's also why you won't find Salt Lake City or many other Utah counties with large numbers of Mormon households near the top of the list, simply because they have larger-than-average households. In fact, we found that nine of the 20 lowest-ranking counties for per-capita income are among the top 20 counties with the most persons per household.

County size is important to consider when examining a map of income as well. Huge geographic areas, like Houston (3), incorporate vast disparities in income: from inner city to affluent suburbs, says Holdrich. Which is why you're less likely to see a county with high per-capita income in areas of the country with geographically large counties. Western counties' per-capita income tends to skew low because of their large size. Where counties are smaller, and wealth and poverty can be easily separated by a county line, per-capita income is up.

Just as there are metro areas that don't appear to have much wealth, there are non-metro areas that have loads of it, including seasonal escapes for the wealthy. Non-metro areas that score in the top 20 for per-capita income include Pitkin County, Colorado ($54,076), home to Aspen; Teton County, Wyoming ($45,758), Jackson Hole; and the island county of Nantucket, Massachusetts ($44,534).

Several upscale Florida communities appear near the top of the list as well. They are Sarasota County, Martin County, Collier County, and Indian River County.

Remember the old adage, it takes money to make money? Well, the richest counties are doing their best not to disprove that. In fact, very little will change with respect to wealth distribution in the next ten years.

In 2010, the only changes to our list of the ten wealthiest counties will be a little place-swapping here and there. Still, nobody will be packing up and moving off the list. The average per-capita income of the top ten is projected to increase by 51 percent between now and 2010. Now that's a raise.

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