The 2017 Distressed Communities Index

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The Distressed Communities Index (DCI) combines seven complementary metrics into a broad-based assessment of community economic well-being in the United States. Relying on Census Bureau data for the years 2011 to 2015, the DCI covers over 26,000 zip codes and 99.9 percent of the U.S. population as well as cities, counties and congressional districts, enabling Americans to understand how their local well-being stacks up at every scale of life. The DCI groups places evenly into five different tiers based on their performance on the index: Prosperous, comfortable, mid-tier, at risk, and distressed.

As you’ll see below, the U.S. economy contains a diverse and fragmented landscape of economic well-being—one in which many communities are flourishing, while far too many are left behind.

The 2017 DCI finds that 52.3 million Americans live in economically distressed communities—the one-fifth of zip codes that score worst on the DCI. That represents one in six Americans, or 17 percent of the U.S. population.

By comparison, 84.8 million Americans live in prosperous communities—the one-fifth of zip codes that score best on the DCI. These top-performing zip codes contain 27 percent of the country’s population, a far greater share than any other tier.

Underlying indicators of well-being vary drastically across the different tiers of U.S. communities.

Performance across the seven component metrics of the DCI

The average state has 15.2 percent of its population in a distressed community, but more than half of the Americans living in distressed communities reside in the South (compared to only 37.5 percent of the total population).


Percent of state population living in distressed zip codes


Prosperity is far more evenly distributed across the country, with 26.5 percent of the population of the average state living in a prosperous zip code.

Percent of state population living in prosperous zip codes


The DCI gives simple and compelling evidence that distressed communities are quite literally being left behind by the rest of the country: The performance gap between the average at risk and distressed zip code is significantly greater than the gap between any other two adjacent groups on six of the seven metrics of the index. Economic well-being is not only lower in distressed zip codes, but it falls away faster at the bottom end of the distribution.

Average values for each quintile of zip codes across the seven component indicators of the DCI

The growth gap between prosperous and distressed zip codes may be the starkest feature of the index because of what it implies about their radically different trajectories.

Over the five-year period from 2011 to 2015, the country added 10.7 million jobs and 310,000 business establishments. Yet that growth was concentrated in the top echelon of U.S. places. An impressive 85 percent of prosperous zip codes saw rising numbers of business establishments and 88 percent registered job growth.

Percent of zip codes in each quintile with rising numbers of business establishments and levels of employment from 2011 to 2015


Outside of the upper echelon, however, growth rapidly becomes less pervasive. Only about two out of every five distressed zip codes registered job growth from 2011 to 2015 and only one in five added business establishments.

Unsurprisingly given these patterns, prosperous zip codes dominated the recovery. They contained 29 percent of the nation’s jobs in 2011 but welcomed 52 percent of the new jobs created over the following five years.

Distribution of the total national increase in employment from 2011 to 2015 across zip codes by quintile


The disparities are even starker in terms of new business activity.  Prosperous zip codes captured 57 percent of the national rise in business establishments from 2011 to 2015—nearly twice their share of existing business establishments in 2011. Distressed America, by contrast, shed more than 17,000 businesses from 2011 to 2015.  

Distribution of the total national rise in business establishments from 2011 to 2015 across zip codes by quintile


The underpinnings of distress in many places predate the latest economic cycle. More than half (54 percent) of the country’s distressed zip codes had fewer jobs and business establishments in 2015 than they did in 2000, compared to 32 percent of all U.S. zip codes and only 13 percent of prosperous zip codes.

Disparities in educational attainment highlight just how deep the roots of the divergence go.

Nearly three out of every five adults in distressed zip codes has no education beyond high school, and only one in seven residents in these struggling communities has completed a four-year degree.

Highest level of educational attainment for adults in prosperous and distressed zip codes


Prosperous communities, on the other hand, are home to a whopping 45 percent of the country’s advanced degree holders and 41 percent of all Americans with a bachelor’s degree. Tellingly, advanced degree holders are more prevalent in prosperous zip codes than college graduates are in distressed ones.

Massive disparities in health outcomes parallel the nation’s economic imbalances. The inhabitants of more prosperous places tend to be healthier than their neighbors in less advantaged communities, where struggles to find work or pay the bills exact heavy physical and psychological tolls.

Americans in prosperous counties live five years longer than their peers in distressed counties on average.

In a corollary, in 2014 the average distressed county registered over 1,000 deaths for every 100,000 residents—38 percent more than the average prosperous county. Among specific causes, mortality from mental and substance abuse disorders is 64 percent higher in distressed counties than in prosperous ones. Neonatal mortality rates—those for infants before birth—are 86 percent higher in the average distressed county.

Women’s health deteriorates especially rapidly on key risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, and physical activity as exposure to distress increases.

Society as a whole incurs a costly burden when the economy leaves entire communities behind.

For example, nearly three times as many SNAP (food stamps) recipients live in distressed zip codes as prosperous ones—even though prosperous zip codes contain over 32 million more people overall.

Comparing the distribution of the total U.S. population across quintiles to the distribution of the population receiving SNAP and other cash public assistance benefits (data by zip code)


Americans are also more prone to go on disability when work opportunities disappear and a community’s economic distress level rises.

And while far more Medicaid recipients live in prosperous counties, which are much more populous overall, in per capita terms two times as much public medical assistance flows to distressed counties.

Percent of the disabled population in each quintile that is outside of the labor force (zip code data)(left)

Public medical assistance spending per capita across quintiles (county data)(right)


Distress scores calculated at different levels of geography expose different fault lines in the American economic experience.

A look at the population density of distressed zip codes across regions reveals much about the nature of distress in different parts of the country. Distress is mainly urban in nature in the Northeast and rural in the South.

Distribution of the population in distressed zip codes in each region by zip code density


By contrast, prosperous zip codes are overwhelmingly suburban in every region.

Distribution of the population in prosperous zip codes in each region by zip code density


The city-level geography of prosperity and distress mirrors the zip code level one: Many of the country’s most prosperous cities are either tech hubs or relatively new, fast-growing Sun Belt destinations. Many of the country’s most distressed cities, on the other hand, are aging industrial hubs in the Northeast or Midwest.

The 10 most distressed of the country’s 100 largest cities


The 10 most prosperous of the country’s 100 largest cities


It’s at the county scale where a stark urban-rural prosperity gap comes into clear focus.

Half of all counties with over 500,000 people are prosperous, compared to only 14 percent of counties with fewer than 100,000 people.

Small counties are also far more likely to be distressed than their larger counterparts—11 times more likely, in fact.

Distribution of counties of different size categories across quintiles


Race remains a strong predictor of one’s standard of living and access to opportunity in the United States today. Over half of the people living in distressed communities are minorities compared to only about a quarter of the population in prosperous zip codes.

Racial composition of the country’s total, distressed, and prosperous populations


Asians and whites are overrepresented in prosperous zip codes while all other groups are underrepresented in communities where well-being runs highest.

Blacks and Native Americans are more likely to live in a distressed zip code than any other type of community. Hispanics are most likely to live in an at risk community, while a plurality of whites and Asians live in prosperous zip codes.

Distribution of each ethnic group’s population across zip codes by quintile


Distressed communities exist in red states and blue states, in liberal enclaves and conservative strongholds. The nature of the distress and its underlying causes may differ from place to place, but each party represents millions of constituents in communities where the economy has broken down and left people behind.

Population represented by each party at multiple levels of government


Distress scores calculated at the congressional district level provide a revealing look at relative economic well-being district by district—shining an economic light on these most political of geographies.

National heat map of congressional district DCI scores

(explore district-level data here)

Republicans represent nine of the 10 most prosperous congressional districts and Democrats six of the 10 most distressed ones. Beyond the tail ends of the distribution, though, the distribution of seats between the two parties is more balanced.

Party breakdown of congressional districts in each quintile


The challenge of “reconnecting” distressed communities is urgent and complex—especially so for policymakers.  Fortunately, hard work, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial energy can be found in every community in the country. Policymakers should focus on empowering those forces to rekindle the grassroots economic growth that made this country the world’s leading economy in the first place.

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