PA counties median income 2000

Counties with median incomes below the national median in brown;
in green, counties with median incomes above the national average
Map: Tim Murphy, for Daily Yonder

If economic distress causes bitterness, as Sen. Barack Obama surmised last week, then it’s not just rural Pennsylvania that should be feeling resentful. Nearly the entire state has seen its fortunes diminish over the last 30 years as the demise of the Pennsylvania economy has been both an urban and a rural phenomenon.

Now, in a state that once was the home of the nation’s manufacturing base, the largest private employer is Wal-Mart.

In 1970, nearly nine out of every 10 counties in Pennsylvania had median incomes that were above the national county median. Thirty years later, there’s a different story. In 2000, less than half of Pennsylvania’s counties had median incomes that exceeded the national median.

PA counties median income 1970

In 1970, a better picture in Pennsylvania: many more counties had median household incomes above the national median (green)
Map: Tim Murphy

The collapse in earning power wasn’t limited to small towns, but ranged across the state, from downtown Philadelphia to the Ohio state line.

For the past week, rural and small town Pennsylvania have been used as shorthand for economic stagnation, loss of hope and diminished expectations. But the Daily Yonder’s analysis finds that every corner of the state has been losing ground economically over the past 30 years.

In 1970, nine of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties recorded median incomes below the national median; all of these low income counties were rural. The median income in 58 Pennsylvania counties was higher than the national median. (The median household income by county in 1970, expressed in today’s dollars, was $35,967.)

But by 2000, 38 Pennsylvania counties, a mix of rural, exurban and urban, had median household incomes below the national median. Only 43 percent of the state’s counties had median incomes higher the national median; the number of rich counties had dropped in half. (Nationally, the median household income in 2000, in today’s dollars, was $42,743.)

In fact, since 1970 only two Pennsylvania counties have gained ground relative to the rest of the nation. Both of those counties — Pike and Perry — are in exurban portions of the state. Meanwhile, one-third of the state’s population — more than 8 million people — live in counties where the inflation-adjusted median household income was lower in 2000 than in 1970.

Much has been made about Sen. Obama’s remarks before a crowd of supporters in San Francisco last week. The Democratic candidate said, “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

PA rural urban exurban

Pennsylvania: urban counties (brown), exurban (yellow), rural (green)
Map: Tim Murphy, for Daily Yonder

Since his speech, most commentary has focused on Obama’s character: Is the Senator from Illinois compassionate or elitist? Left unexamined has been Obama’s assumption that economic collapse in Pennsylvania — and much of the Midwest — has been largely rural. In Pennsylvania, that is simply wrong. Far more Pennsylvanians live in stagnating urban centers than in declining rural or exurban parts of the state.

The Yonder compared the change in county median household incomes in Pennsylvania with the median incomes of all the nation’s 3100 counties. (To find the median, all incomes are ranked highest to lowest and then divided into two sets. Half are above the median and half are below. All comparisons are made in dollars adjusted for inflation to 2006.)

The maps on this page give a glimpse at Pennsylvania’s economic tumble over the past 30 years. In 1970, most Pennsylvania counties had median household incomes above the national median. (Green counties are above the national median; counties in brown are below the national median.)

By 2000, however, much of the state had dropped into the lower half of national household income — and the collapse was not just in rural areas. Philadelphia County fell below the national median in county household income and so did the counties containing Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Altoona.

In 2003, the Brookings Institution issued a report on the Pennsylvania economy that explained much of what has befallen the state. Pennsylvania once had the advantages that generated prosperity. It had good roads, strong manufacturing firms that were all near major markets.

As manufacturing became a diminishing part of the U.S. economy, however, Pennsylvania suffered. Philadelphia lost 76 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 1970 and 2000 — 184,000 jobs. Pittsburgh lost 62 percent of its industrial jobs. From July 2000 until June 2003, the U.S. lost 2.6 million factory jobs. One out of six of these came from Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the state suffered from major outmigration. From 1995 to 2000, according to Brookings, Pennsylvania had the fifth largest outmigration of the 50 states.

Young workers in particular left the state. “During the 1990s, no state lost more young workers than Pennsylvania,” according to Brookings.

And the loss of these young people was “nearly universal among the state’s major regions and metropolitan areas.” Rural, small town and urban Pennsylvania all saw their young people leave.

PA counties median income change

Change in median income, relative to the rest of the county: yellow counties’ ranking stayed steady, green counties gained, brown and orange counties’ ranking fell
Map: Tim Murphy, for Daily Yonder

The whole state fell from its relatively prosperous place within the United States in 1970. In this final map, we measure how each Pennsylvania county fared economically as compared to the rest of the United States.

Imagine a listing of all 3100 U.S. counties ranked by median household income in 1970 and again in 2000. This map shows how each county changed in its ranking over those 30 years. Yellow counties stayed in about the same place in the rankings.

Green counties rose in the rankings of all U.S. counties by more than 10 percent. These were the big gainers in terms of income, and in Pennsylvania only two counties made such gains.

Brown counties dropped in the ranking. Light brown counties dropped between 10 and 20 percent — sliding down between 310 and 620 counties in the ranking. The darker the brown, the larger the drop in a county’s ranking.

Forest County, Pennsylvania, (in dark orange) saw its ranking drop by 60 percent — or by more than 1,800 counties on the rank ordering of all U.S. counties by household income. This rural county, in northwest Pennsylvania, was the only county in the state designated “distressed” by the Appalachian Regional Commission in 2007. (These are counties with low income, high poverty and high unemployment rates, relative to the rest of the nation.)

fawns in Pennsylvania
Twin fawns and a doe near the Tionesta Campground in Forest County, PA
Photo: John McCullough

There’s not one traffic light in all Forest County, according to wiki, and “75% of all dwellings here are second homes.” It has long been a favorite hunting and fishing destination for Pennsylvanians and many others, too, coming from as far away as Chicago to vacation along the Tionesta River.

Just as urgent as the presidential primary this coming Tuesday will be the vote on a proposed real estate tax, a hefty 8.12% increase. The proposed tax is to shore up the Forest Area School District, which plans its own tax increase as well.

This whole northwest region, including the City of Erie, experienced tremendous outmigration, but a recent report shows Forest has surpassed even affluent Pike County (in the greater New York City and Newark metro area) in rates of growth. Why? In the 2000 Census, Forest County had the smallest population of any Pennsylvania County so it doesn’t take many new people to register significant increase in population rates. And a new state prison was built here in 2004.

But in terms of household income, relative to the rest of the nation, rural Forest County had much in common with Philadelphia and Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh). In these urban center of Pennsylvania, too, median incomes dropped dramatically relative to the rest of the United States.

If as Senator Obama says, hard economic times result in bitterness, Pennsylvania’s deer hunters, steelworkers and Sixers fans have a lot in common.

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