New report finds 6.1% of Washingtonians live in economically distressed communities; the state average is 15%

The 2017 Distressed Communities Index produced by the Economic Innovation Group takes a deep look at economic disparities across the nation. On most measures, Washington looks pretty good, although the state – as we’ve written often – contains an urban-rural divide.

Nationally, the economic divide appears stark.

In total, 52.3 million individuals live in economically distressed zip codes— meaning the zip codes that fall into the worst-performing quintile on the DCI. That equates to one in six Americans, or 17 percent of the U.S. population. Such communities can be found in every region of the country and in rural areas, suburbs, and city centers…

In the average state, 15 percent of residents live in a distressed community, but that average obscures widespread variation across the map. Residents of distressed communities comprise less than 10 percent of the population in 20 states mostly west of the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, 17 mostly southern states have more than 20 percent of their populations living in distressed zip codes.

The data show Washington among the least distressed states, with just 6.1 percent of the population living in distressed zip codes.

The DCI is calculated using seven metrics: 

  • Percent of the population 25 years and older without a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Percent of habitable housing that is unoccupied, excluding properties that are for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use
  • Percent of the prime-age population (ages 25-64) not currently in work
  • Percent of the population whose household income falls below the poverty line
  • A geography’s median income expressed as a percentage of its state’s median income
  • Percent change in the number of jobs from 2011 to 20151

The index calculates “distress scores” at the zip code, city, county, and Congressional district level. Overall, the authors report,

America’s elite zip codes are home to a spectacular degree of growth and prosperity—hubs of innovation and progress seemingly immune to the concerns over automation, globalization, or lack of upward mobility that pervade national headlines. However, outside of those top communities, economic well- being is often tenuous at best. And, at worst, millions of Americans are stuck in places where what little economic stability exists is quickly eroding beneath their feet.

Unsurprisingly, as the map below shows, Seattle remains in elite company:

In the Seattle Times, Jon Talton reports on the DCI.

Indeed, Seattle comes out even better among actual peers. After San Francisco, it is No. 2 among real cities on the top 10 most prosperous list, which also includes Austin and San Jose. Otherwise, the leaders are high-end suburbs, such as Gilbert, Ariz., and Plano, Texas.

Only 2.2 percent of Seattle’s population lives in distressed ZIP codes. Nearly 53 percent live in prosperous ones. On inequality, Seattle ranks 45 out of 100 cities.

There’s a wealth of data in the report, including some useful interactive features. After pointing out that it “is fair to wonder whether a recovery that excludes tens of millions of Americans and thousands of communities deserves to be called a recovery at all,” the report concludes optimistically.

Fortunately, hard work, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial energy can be found in every community across the country. Policymakers should focus on empowering those forces in order to rekindle the grassroots economic growth that made this country the world’s leading economy in the first place.

Makes sense to us.