The Covid-19 pandemic has reshuffled the U.S. economy on a fundamental level. Everything has changed — from how and where Americans work, to the way they shop and entertain, to how they conduct business meetings. More than two years after the first nationwide Covid shutdown, movie theaters are still mostly empty, and many restaurants have not bounced back. Schools have largely returned to normal, but with an eye out for new variants. These are the kinds of large-scale shifts that are causing uncertainty and upheaval in communities across the country.
But all the changes have also unfolded on a very uneven landscape and have the potential to lead to vastly varied impacts on communities’ social and economic health.
The data show how some communities went into the pandemic with strong economies to protect them, while others started off with deeper challenges across many areas, from unemployment to income inequality to homeownership. Together, the numbers show just how complicated the road out of the pandemic will be. Like a relay race with a staggered start, some places have inherent advantages that are only likely to grow as the recovery unfolds and the worst parts of Covid drift into the rear-view mirror. Others are likely to find themselves not only trying to recover from the virus but also adjusting to the new world from a lagging position with little way to make up ground.
The data serve as a reminder that the national narratives coming out of the pandemic do not adequately explain what is actually happening on the ground in different kinds of places. And finding a “new normal” is likely to take much longer in some communities than in others.
For this report, the American Communities Project worked with the Economic Innovation Group to analyze asset income per capita across the ACP’s 15 county types. That is income specifically from dividends, interest, and collected rent. The numbers are a baseline for this report because they go to the heart of a broader question of economic health at the community level.
“The pandemic has underscored the divide in financial security and well-being between the Americans who own assets and those who do not,” EIG Research Director Kenan Fikri said upon the release of the organization’s asset income report in August 2021. “The overall economy is booming and asset prices are soaring, but many American communities are left out with little direct stake in the wealth created on financial markets. Building wealth inclusively will require expanded and innovative pathways to increase asset ownership for more American families.”
The larger truth behind these words still holds. The EIG analysis looked at asset income in the ACP types going back 50 years. During the last 10 years, a group of communities has emerged above others, showing steady asset income growth. The most urban community types, the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs; the agriculture-driven Aging Farmlands; and the Graying America retirement havens stand above the rest of the ACP types.
On the other end is a set of ACP types that lack those advantages, and most of them are home to large communities of color: Hispanic Centers, Native American Lands, African American South as well as Working Class Country and Evangelical Hubs. As those communities look to emerge from the pandemic, they not only lack that asset income stream but also face long-term challenges on issues such as child poverty.
The way those advantages and difficulties play out at the community level will be important for policymakers to understand as the nation adjusts to life after Covid-19. There won’t be simple one-size-fits-all answers, but solutions that draw on the resources of particular places and fit their demographics and terrains.
Dividends, Interest and Rent per Capita
To explore how these data fit with the strengths and challenges of the different community types in the ACP, we use the latest data from the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps in the second half of this report. We examine where each type stands on unemployment, poverty, income inequality, housing, and segregation.
Asset Income by ACP Type
If communities with higher asset incomes start off in a better position on the path out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ACP typology points to a set of communities with a notable advantage. Four community types stand out among the 15 types. Urban Suburbs, Big Cities, Aging Farmlands, and Graying America all have a per capita asset income of $12,000 or more.
In some ways, they are curious mix of places. Big Cities and Urban Suburbs are often in close proximity in economic data. They tend to be home to more people with college degrees and higher incomes; greater population density; and bigger, wealthier employers. On issues of economic attainment, it is not common to have those two places grouped with rural communities, such as the Aging Farmlands and Graying America. What’s behind this peculiar alignment? Different kinds of people and assets.
It’s logical that the Urban Suburbs ($14,190 in asset income per capita) and Big Cities ($13,860 in asset income per capita) are the top two groups here. The assets being measured here are dividends, interest, and collected rent. And these communities are more likely to have people who own stocks and bonds, and people who own real estate.
The higher incomes in both community types mean people often have bigger investment portfolios. So as the stock market thrived during the pandemic (even as other parts of the economy stalled out), many people in the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs could log into their investment accounts and feel comfortable. Many residents in these communities also held the kind of jobs where “working from home” was an option, further insulating them from the worse effects of Covid-19.
Real estate is more complicated. Home prices and rents have skyrocketed in Big Cities and Urban Suburbs in recent years, and that may be a drag on the personal economic situations of some in these communities. But these same communities are more likely to be the homes of landlords who own rental properties in urban areas. So as housing prices and rents rise, that money largely stays “at home” in Big Cities and Urban Suburbs.
The economy of Aging Farmlands ($12,400 in asset income per capita) has long operated differently than that of the rest of the country. These communities are not focused on Wall Street but are built around agriculture. Although they rarely look ostentatious, there is a lot of wealth in them. Farmers aren’t just people who plow fields, they are extremely attuned to global commodity markets. Go to an Aging Farmland community, where the price of a bushel of corn or wheat is on everyone’s tongue or their smartphone screen. People in these places know returns can be about when futures contracts are signed and harvests are sold.
Land is an enormous part of wealth and renting plots — to other farmers or to outsiders as game refuges — can be extremely lucrative. In some ways, these communities may have been the most insulated from the short-term economic impacts of Covid. Add in the fact that “social distancing” is part of everyday life in these extremely rural places and their advantage grows.
Graying America ($12,390 in asset income per capita) may be the biggest surprise on this list, but it has a few big advantages in terms of asset income. First, many of these communities have become retirement centers for aging baby boomers. After years on the job, they take their accumulated wealth and stock portfolios to rural cities and towns they have come to know through vacations and weekend getaways. Look at the map of Graying America, and you’ll notice lots of places on water or in the mountains. These kinds of places catch the eyes of people with a few dollars, and suddenly more free time. (An analysis of the 2020 census shows about half of Graying American counties gained people in the last decade, bucking a larger trend of rural places losing population).
As those Graying America tourist destinations add people and grow in popularity, they have also benefited from the home vacation rental market. Short-term vacation rental income from sites such as VRBO have added greatly to the rental income of these communities. And during Covid, when overseas travel and even hotel stays were a no-go for many people, Graying America was a winner.
The next six community types bunch together, from just under $10,000 to just above $8,000 in asset income per capita. All these communities are comfortably middle-income, but felt the effects of Covid-19 differently, given their demographics and locations. The communities run the geographical gamut — from LDS Enclaves in the interior West to College Towns scattered around the country, Exurbs in the outlying suburbs of cities, Middle Suburbs ringing cities in the Rust Belt, Military Posts on and around bases, and Rural Middle America, encompassing 599 counties along America’s upper half from Maine through the Great Lakes to Montana to Washington.
The asset income per capita in College Towns is $9,998. These middle-income communities emptied out when Covid hit but have been coming back since the fall of 2021 with the widespread distribution of vaccines. As younger communities, they did not suffer the losses of more densely populated communities with a greater age range. These communities are also loaded with renters — college students, graduate students, and even professors stay for a few seasons, then move on.
In Exurbs, the asset income per capita is $9,350. Exurbs are considered relatively wealthy among the 15 types with some rural attributes. Here, residents tend to be more settled. Dividends and interest are common and important assets. During the pandemic, many white-collar residents were able to work from home, their retirement plans growing as the stock market soared. And newcomers bought homes, freed from the constraints of commuting to a downtown office.
Military Posts‘ asset income per capita is $9,320. Like College Towns, military communities are younger and more transitory. Government paychecks where money is invested in retirement accounts are the norm. In August 2021, the Department of Defense took steps to mitigate Covid effects, requiring all service members to be vaccinated against the virus.
Rural Middle America’s asset income per capita is $8,720. These places are defined by small towns, and like Exurbs, tend to have more established residents. Unlike Aging Farmlands, they are not heavily reliant on agriculture, but driven by a mix of ag, manufacturing, and services, which took a hit during the pandemic. Assets, of course, go hand in hand with people. Youth and older residents have been leaving these communities for more opportunity and a better quality of life; the 2020 census confirms a 0.3% population decline in the past decade.
LDS Enclaves’ asset income per capita is $8,480. These younger communities are the centers of the nation’s Mormon population — and they are growing. The 2020 census shows LDS Enclave growth at 17.7%. Twenty-nine percent of the population in LDS Enclaves are under 18, with fewer assets to their name yet. Only 14% are over 65, a population that tends to have more assets. In some parts, the tech industry is burgeoning. In 2021, Salt Lake City (in Salt Lake County, an LDS Enclave) was one of six cities to document “impressive” growth, according to a report from the Computing Technology Industry Association. The Silicon Slopes in Utah are concentrated around Salt Lake.
In Middle Suburbs, asset income per capita is $8,170. Middle Suburbs have been hard hit by the effects of globalization in the past 30 years. Manufacturing layoffs were constant in the 1990s and 2000s. Once heavily unionized, these communities have struggled in recent decades. They lack the high incomes and investment portfolios of other urban communities.
Bringing up the rear are the communities of color — African American South, Hispanic Centers, and Native American Lands — as well as working-class white communities in Appalachia and the South, all places where long-standing structural inequities permeate daily life and robust economic development is atypical. Covid is among many ongoing difficulties. Of the 15 ACP types, Evangelical Hubs, Hispanic Centers, Working Class Country, and African American South counties have seen the least amount of change in asset income per capita since 1990, only rising $760 to $1,260 in 30 years.
Agriculture is a dominant industry in Hispanic Centers, where the asset income per capita is $7,300. Hispanic Centers are home for many younger residents and immigrants, some of whom are sending money earned from working on farms and in hospitality and meatpacking plants to family outside these communities.
Working Class Country’s asset income per capita sits at $6,770. Coal country has felt the loss of its dominant industry. Bright spots: These mostly white communities concentrated in Appalachia can be inexpensive vacation destinations, draws for their country settings and picturesque views.
Native American Lands have a host of difficulties that hold down their asset income per capita to $6,440. On Indian reservations, many people work in the underground economy and do not use banks or own much. Generational poverty is an ongoing challenge. A mindset of giving is also common here, one in which people share whatever they have with someone who has less.
The African American South’s challenges seem just as deep-seated. Here the asset income per capita is $6,180. These rural communities also lack economic development. Moreover, segregation between Blacks and whites remains a fact of daily life — and that includes assets such as rental income, dividends, and interest.
In neighboring Evangelical Hubs, the asset income per capita is the lowest of the 15 types at $5,960. In these older, white communities, religion is a pillar of life, but industry is scarce and infrastructure, including housing, is often subpar.
Diverse Socioeconomic Landscapes
The asset income numbers in the first half of this report offer a sense of the underlying resources in the ACP’s 15 community types, but those resources make up only a part of the picture of those places. The community types sit in distinct socioeconomic landscapes that lead to different underlying strengths and challenges. To understand those landscapes, the ACP worked with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, analyzing the CHRR measures through the ACP typology.
This section examines what those measures can tell us about four major areas: unemployment, poverty, housing, and segregation.
Unemployment and Labor
Most of those who have paid attention to the economic impacts of Covid-19 know the story of unemployment. March 2020 brought a massive shock to the system when the nation ground to a halt and businesses shuttered — some temporarily, some permanently — as the parameters of the pandemic’s effects became known. A large portion of the population went on paid and unpaid leave and then, slowly, they went back to work, many from home. Others waited, unsure of whether and when it was safe to return to work.
But the impacts across the ACP’s 15 types were very uneven. Some communities have a greater share of jobs that can be shifted to “work from home” than others. Some rely more heavily on tourism dollars. And some communities consistently have lower unemployment rates than others simply due to their employer base.
To gain a solid understanding of what happened by community type, you have to consider two factors: the unemployment rate and the labor force figures. Since the unemployment spike that arrived with Covid in 2020, the numbers have improved dramatically, back to near pre-pandemic levels. But in many cases, that drop has happened with fewer people in the workforce — that is particularly true in some community types.
Comparing February 2022 (the latest data) to February 2020 (the last month before the pandemic hit), you see that the unemployment rates dipped in almost half of the ACP types.
The Native American Lands have seen the biggest decline, with an unemployment rate that has dropped by 0.7 points. LDS Enclaves and Aging Farmlands have also seen big drops, more than half a percentage point, in that time. Those types are among the most rural ones in the ACP. However, simply saying “rural communities weathered Covid better” misses some big differences in those declines. Even with the declines, Native American Lands still have a relatively high unemployment rate, 6%, meanwhile LDS Enclaves and Aging Farmlands have the lowest unemployment rates in the ACP, both under 3%. The point: Simply measuring the change in the unemployment rate misses a lot of subtlety. (More on that in the discussion of labor force.)
The data suggest urban places have had a tougher time getting back to their pre-Covid norms. The Big Cities alone have an unemployment rate that is a full point higher than it was in February 2020. Some of that increase may be due to offices still being largely empty in many major cities — meaning there is less need for services (cafes, restaurants, etc.) around them. The Urban Suburbs have also seen a jump of half a point and the Exurbs are up 0.3 points. Those increases are somewhat surprising considering those communities are generally home to more college degrees and white-collar jobs (the kinds spared a lot of loss during the pandemic). But the data indicate the economic pain may have been more widespread than understood in most analyses, with service sector job losses being widespread.
The numbers also point to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities being hit harder than other places in the pandemic. African American South counties and Hispanic Centers tend to be more rural than others, but they still saw significant increases in unemployment compared to their less racially diverse rural counterparts, such as Rural Middle America and Evangelical Hubs.
And none of that takes into account the change in labor force numbers that have become a big part of the Covid economy story. Two-thirds of the ACP types saw a drop in their labor force (the number of people actively looking for a job) in February 2022 compared to February 2020.
Big Cities and Urban Suburbs lead the way for the largest drop in the workforce. Some of that is to be expected because they hold the most workers, and as mentioned above, their economies took hits in the service sector.
The most prominent dip, however, may be the small-town Rural Middle American communities. Those counties have less than a third of the population of the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, but their labor force reduction was almost the same size, about 216,000 fewer people.
Again, there are signs in the labor force data that some rural communities may be rebounding a little better than the nation as a whole. Of the five communities that saw an increase in labor force, four of them — Aging Farmlands, Graying America, LDS Enclaves, and Military Posts — generally have lower population densities.
In terms of adding workers, the biggest winner was the Exurbs. The counties, generally on the edge of urban areas, added almost 400,000 workers. They may have gained from workers commuting to cities less frequently and using services more closely located to their homes.
The labor force numbers also suggest that communities of color have had a harder time recovering from the Covid. The three ACP types with large communities of color all experienced drops in their workforce: the African American South, Hispanic Centers and Native American Lands. Although the drop in the Native American Lands is the smallest, it is the largest as a percentage of its workforce — eliminating the gain those communities made in their overall unemployment rate.
In many communities, the question of resources is complicated by the fact that they are spread out unevenly. That means that even if a community looks healthy in the data, on the ground there can be vast differences between haves and have-nots that require more spending on social programs. The CHRR measures income inequality by measuring the ratio of household income at the 80th percentile to income at the 20th percentile. There are stark differences within the ACP community types. The numbers range from a low of 3.8 in the LDS Enclaves to high of 5.2 in the African American South and Native American Lands.
There are some surprises in the numbers here.
It is often assumed that more urban areas have higher amounts of inequality as they are generally home to great wealth and great poverty. And there is some evidence for that in these figures. The Big Cities at 4.7 and the Urban Suburbs at 4.6 have some of the higher inequality scores.
However, the highest numbers here belong to two rural community types with large BIPOC communities: the African American South at 5.2 and the Native American Lands at 5.2. (It should be noted the Hispanic Centers are lower at 4.5.) Those figures suggest that a big part of economic inequality in the United States is tied to racial and ethnic disparities. It also suggests that coming out of the pandemic, rural communities may need special attention.
It also should be noted that racial and ethnic homogeneity may play a role in lower economic inequality figures. The two community types with the lowest inequality scores — LDS Enclaves and Exurbs — are a mix of suburban and rural locales. However, both are much less racially and ethnically diverse than the nation as a whole. And LDS Enclaves and Aging Farmlands are both more than 85% white, non-Hispanic.
The CHRR data show radically different situations for child poverty in the ACP types, from a low of just 11% in the Exurbs to a high of 31% in the Native American Lands. In the context of other challenges during the pandemic, from schooling to unemployment, these numbers indicate the disparate community needs coming out of Covid-19.
There is, again, clearly a racial component to these data. The community types with large BIPOC populations — the African American South, Hispanic Centers, and Native American Lands — all have child poverty figures at 20% or above, and in the African American South and Native American Lands, the figure is around 30%.
The challenges in rural communities are apparent in these data as well. Two other communities have child poverty figures above 20% — Evangelical Hubs and Working Class Country — and both are predominantly white, non-Hispanic, but also largely rural.
No amount of child poverty is a positive, of course, but urban communities generally fare better on this measure. Exurbs, Middle Suburbs, and Urban Suburbs are in the top half of the ACP types of child poverty. Even the densely populated and economically diverse Big Cities are below 20%.
As the nation slowly works its way back to a new normalcy, those differences will be important to keep in mind. The challenges of urban youth tend to grab national attention, but it’s clear that rural communities face their own obstacles. And, as noted above, these are the same kinds of communities that lack internal wealth, which would help to climb out of the damage Covid has wrought. They have lower asset incomes and lower household incomes.
In another facet of community internal wealth, homeownership tends to be highest in communities with older, settled, white, and rural residents. The highest median homeowner rates are in Appalachian-based Working Class Country; middle-income, younger LDS Enclaves in the interior West; Exurbs, now popular places to raise families outside cities; and overwhelmingly white and land-rich Aging Farmlands in the plains. All stand at 77%, according to the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. Older white rural communities, Rural Middle America and Graying America, come in close behind at 75%.
Homeownership drops precipitously in cities where population density is greatest, and owning property is at a premium. Overall, ownership is lowest among diverse, stratified, transitory, younger communities: Big Cities at 55%, College Towns at 62%, Urban Suburbs at 64%, Native American Lands at 65%, and Military Posts at 66%.
Furthermore, communities where homeownership is low often face severe housing problems, i.e., “at least one of four: overcrowding, high housing costs, lack of kitchen facilities, or lack of plumbing facilities,” according to the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps. Native American Lands and Big Cities endure the highest rates of severe housing problems at 19%; Urban Suburbs, the suburbs closest to cities, come in at 17%.
Moving beyond the home, the experience with residential segregation can be vastly different depending on the kind of community in which one lives. Segregation between whites and nonwhites tends to be greatest in more densely populated places: Middle Suburbs’ median segregation index sits at 42, Big Cities at 40, and Urban Suburbs at 38. The exception is in rural Native American Lands, where the indigenous population typically lives apart from whites. It has the highest segregation rate at 48.
In an interesting finding, Hispanic Centers — where self-identified Hispanics make up an average of 56% of the population — have the lowest segregation rate among community types at 23. This figure accounts for the demographic distinction between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics. So it’s possible to see such a low number in this dissimilarity index because an overwhelming number of people self-identify as Hispanic in some counties and/or there’s a very high reliance on agriculture, a more integrated field.
Residential segregation between whites and Blacks is highest in predominantly white, middle-income communities in the Northeast, Midwest, and interior West: LDS Enclaves at 75 and Rural Middle America at 61.
Racially diverse and densely populated places are much lower on the index, with Big Cities at 54 and Urban Suburbs at 53. Perhaps it’s surprising that the African American South has the lowest rate of Black/white segregation at 35. This might be partly because these counties have fewer residents, and homes in these rural locales are scattered, with fewer planned neighborhoods. It’s important to note, however, that daily life in the African American South is often segregated.
The connection between communities’ internal wealth and segregation of racial/ethnic demographic groups is an area ripe for further study.