The question at the core of most of today’s debates in American politics is whether all people have an unalienable right to keep the fruits of their own labor—as the Founders believed and the Declaration of Independence (properly understood) asserts—or whether the government should funnel vast sums of money to the nation’s capital and then magnanimously redistribute it back to the tributaries. Well, the stats are in, and it seems that neither of these two notions is really being fulfilled. To be sure, Americans’ money is flowing to the nation’s capital. But it’s not flowing back.
Indeed, the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., a city with little identifiable industrial output, dominates the Census Bureau’s newly updated list of America’s wealthiest counties. Here are some highlights from that list:
Based on the median family income in 2012, the wealthiest county in America—by far—is Arlington Co., Va., located just across the Potomac River from D.C. In fact, Arlington’s median family income ($137,216) is more than $10,000 higher than that of any other county in the United States.
The county with the 2nd-highest median family income ($127,192) is Loudoun Co., Va., also located in the D.C. metro area (according to the White House Office of Management and Budget’s list of metropolitan areas). The 3rd-highest tally ($125,162) belongs to Howard Co., Md., which technically isn’t part of the D.C. metro area but is located between D.C. and Baltimore and is home to many people who commute to D.C. The 4th-highest tally ($124,831) belongs to Fairfax Co., Va., yet another county located in the D.C. metro area.
In other words, in a nation that ranges from the Pacific to the Atlantic and boasts such grand and affluent cities as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego, Boston, and Seattle (among others), the four wealthiest counties in the land are all within commuting distance of the capital.
In the fifth spot, the New York metro area finally makes the list, as that position is held by Hunterdon Co., N.J. ($123,454). California finally makes the list in the sixth spot, which is held by Marin Co. ($115,513), located just across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. The seventh spot, however, is filled by Montgomery Co., Md. ($113,588), which borders D.C.
Thus, the D.C. metro area (population: 6 million) claims 4 of the top 7 spots, while the nation’s 380 other metro areas (total population: 308 million) combine to claim just 3. Is this what President Obama means by “fairness”?
Looking just a bit further down the list, there are only 26 counties where the median family income is over $100,000. Texas, Florida, and Illinois are among the 40 states that do not have a single $100,000 county. California has only 2. But the states bordering D.C.—Virginia and Maryland—have 7 and 4, respectively; and not one of those is in southern Virginia or northern Maryland.
Below are the metro areas that, based on median family income, have the most $100,000 counties.
Metro areas with the most $100,000 counties:
1. Washington, D.C., 9
2. New York, N.Y., 7
3. (tie) Baltimore, Md., 2 (both centered within 40 miles of D.C.)
3. (tie) Boston, Mass., 2
5. (tie) Bridgeport, Conn.; Denver, Colo.; Nashville, Tenn.; Philadelphia, Pa.; San Francisco, Calif.; San Jose, Calif., 1
Note that the metro areas of Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Miami, Dallas, Houston, and even Los Angeles don’t include a single $100,000 county among them, while the D.C. metro area has 9. Note also that New York’s metro area (population: 20 million) is more than three time the size of D.C.’s, yet the former has fewer $100,000 counties than the latter.
The eye-opening affluence of D.C.’s surrounding areas might make one wonder whether all of that city’s wealth has merely moved out of the city proper. Alas, this clearly hasn’t been the case. In addition to D.C.’s extraordinarily affluent suburbs, the median family income in the city itself ($82,268) is higher than the median family income in 46 of the 50 states.
The seemingly inescapable conclusion is that a great deal of Americans’ hard-earned money is flowing to the nation’s capital and simply staying there. Decades of efforts to centralize and consolidate money and power in D.C. have, not surprisingly, made D.C. an unparalleled center of money and power.
About 175 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, referring to the unfortunate mindset of so many of “the ambitious and capable” in our society, wrote, “It is a waste of one’s time to want to prove to them that extreme centralization can be harmful to the state, since they centralize for themselves.”
The stats suggest he was right.
Anderson is executive director of the newly formed 2017 Project, which is working to advance a conservative reform agenda.