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Home » Economic Geography, Montana Atlas, North America

The Income of the One Percent Across the United States (and in Montana)

Submitted by on August 10, 2022 – 9:27 am |  

I was anticipating that yesterday’s post would conclude the current series on county-level maps of the United States, with a focus on Montana, but I came across another fascinating map that cannot be ignored. Posted on the graphics-rich Visual Capitalist webpage, this map shows the average annual income of the top one percent of residents in each U.S. county. The map, however, does have problems; note how much of California’s Bay Area – a place where the elite tend be very wealthy indeed – has been oddly erased.

Most of the patterns evident on this map are not all that surprising. But it is interesting to see the huge variations in the income level of the “one percent” at the county scale. The callouts, which point to the counties with the highest income levels, are useful. Note how the figure found in Teton County, Wyoming – the site of Jackson Hole – dwarfs all others. Many other Wyoming counties also rank quite high, yet Wyoming still has the third lowest level of income inequality in the country (as reflected in its  GINI Coefficient). I have a difficult time understanding why Wyoming, a wealthy state with an abundance of natural beauty, has avoided the recent population surge that has occurred in neighboring Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Montana. In 1980, the state had a mere 469,557 residents; in 2020, the number had increased only to 576,851.

Several other natural-amenity counties in the West are also near the top of the chart, including Summit County, Utah (Park City); Blaine County, Idaho (Sun Valley); and Pitkin County, Colorado (Aspen). (As its Wikipedia article notes, when “measured by mean income of the top 5% of earners, [Pitkin] is the wealthiest U.S. county.) A more surprising listing is Douglas County, Nevada, located just east of the Sierra Nevada crest. Scenic Douglas has seen rapid growth over recent decades, surging from fewer than 7,000 residents in 1970 to almost 50,000 in 2020. Many of its newcomers are wealthy former California residents seeking a low-tax haven.

Quite a few sparsely populated counties fall into the top tiers on this map despite having few natural or culturally amenities. Many are in energy-producing areas, but others are largely agricultural. Across the Great Plains, figures very widely. South Dakota, for example, has several counties in the second-highest tier and several in the lowest. Union County SD, with fewer than 17,000 residents, posts an elevated figure of 4.1 million. Also in the top tier is Minnehaha, two counties to the north. Minnehaha contains booming Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city (population 197,000). Sioux Falls has emerged as an important financial hub, particularly for credit-card companies, owing largely to South Dakota’s relaxed usury laws. South Dakota’s extraordinarily relaxed residency and taxation laws help explain its other centers of wealth. As the South Dakota Residency Center webpage notes:

Unlike many states in the Union, which don’t make being a full-time traveler easy, South Dakota welcomes full-time travelers to its ranks. Here are some of our favorite reasons why South Dakota has become one of the most popular places for travelers to establish residency.

We don’t have state income tax, pension tax, personal property tax, or inheritance tax. 

That’s right, South Dakota is one of the lowest taxed states in the country! When you consider all the different types of taxes, South Dakota comes in well below the average. Plus, you can’t beat the 0% personal income tax.

With only 24 hours of actually being in the state, you can become a resident for at least five years before you’ll need to renew your driver’s license again.

It’s easy to license and register your vehicle.

Not only are our fees for licensing and registration low, but you can also complete your license and registration remotely. That means you don’t have to make a special trip to the state whenever you need to update your registration or register a new vehicle. Plus, you don’t have to undergo yearly vehicle inspections.

 

Most counties in the upper-interior south post relatively low income levels for their top earners. Although levels are somewhat higher in Kentucky’s storied Bluegrass region, noted for its horse breeding operations, none of its counties make the top tiers. In the Ozarks, one county does rank very high: Benton County, Arkansas, in the extreme northwestern corner of the state. Not coincidentally, Benton is the home of several major corporations: Walmart, JB Hunt Transport Services, Tyson Foods, and Simmons Foods. Unlike the rest of the state, northwestern Arkansas has been booming over the past few decades.

I find the Montana map of high earners quite surprising. The dark blue counties along the state’s eastern border are energy producers, and are thus expected to fall into a high category. But Powder River County is in a very low category even though its GINI Coefficient (see yesterday’s post) is very high and its poverty rate is moderately low. I am not sure how these figures could add up. I also find it mystifying that Gallatin County (Bozeman) would not make the top tier, and would be exceeded by Missoula County. The level of wealth among the rich people of Bozeman – and especially of Big Sky – is staggering. If the map is indeed accurate, I can only conclude that most of Gallatin’s wealthiest property owners maintain their official residences in other states. (South Dakota, perhaps?)

In conclusion to this series, I would like to thank William and Linda Wyckoff, who have been my mentors in the geography of Montana. Invaluable lessons have been given in fieldtrips and brew-pub conversations. Bill’s knowledge of the American West is unparalleled. I strongly recommend all of his books, but would like to draw special attention to How to Read the American West: A Field Guide. As noted on the book’s Amazon page:

From deserts to ghost towns, from national forests to California bungalows, many of the features of the western American landscape are well known to residents and travelers alike. But in How to Read the American West, William Wyckoff introduces readers anew to these familiar landscapes. A geographer and an accomplished photographer, Wyckoff offers a fresh perspective on the natural and human history of the American West and encourages readers to discover that history has shaped the places where people live, work, and visit.

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