Key Findings

Imagine the American landscape as a patchwork quilt of economic well-being, with each square representing a different community. The Distressed Communities Index (DCI) maps this patchwork. It sorts communities based on performance across seven economic indicators into five distinct tiers: prosperous, comfortable, mid-tier, at risk, and distressed. In doing so, the DCI illuminates the deep and localized disparities in economic well-being that define American life.

Tens of millions live in distressed zip codes as prosperous communities thrive.

  • Fifty-two million Americans live in distressed zip codes, roughly the population of Texas and Florida combined.
  • By contrast, the largest number of Americans (81 million) live in prosperous zip codes, demonstrating the gravitational pull that helps sustain prosperity in well-off places.

Distressed communities are separated from their neighbors by some of the largest economic gaps in the country

    • Twice as many prime-age adults are out of work in the typical distressed zip code as in the typical prosperous one.
    • The poverty rate in the average distressed zip code is more than four times higher than the average prosperous one.
    • Prosperous zip codes dramatically outpaced peers on measures of growth. On average, they enjoyed twice the rate of increase in business establishments and two-and-a-half times the rate of job growth from 2017 to 2021 than zip codes in the next best quintile.
    • Only distressed zip codes contained fewer jobs and businesses at the end of the period than they had at the start.

Black, Hispanic, and Native American residents are overrepresented in communities on the lower rungs of economic well-being.

  • Black Americans are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic Whites to live in a distressed zip code, and Native Americans are more than three times as likely.
  • One-third of the Asian American population lives in prosperous zip codes, more than any other racial or demographic group. Whites follow close behind at 30 percent.
  • Hispanics are most evenly distributed across quintiles, although the largest share of the group’s population resides in at risk communities.

Economic distress is widespread across states in the Deep South, while prosperity is most common in Mountain West states.

  • Mississippi ranks last, with 45 percent of its population residing in a distressed zip code, followed by Louisiana (41 percent) and West Virginia (40 percent). Distress is especially prevalent across the South.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, prosperity is widespread in top-ranking Utah and Minnesota, where 55 percent and 42 percent of the populations, respectively, reside in prosperous zip codes.

Economic hardship contributes to shorter lifespans in distressed communities.

  • A 6-year gap in life expectancy separates the typical prosperous county from a distressed one. Residents of affluent counties can expect to reach 79 years of age, while those in the typical distressed county only live to age 73.
  • Educational attainment serves as a powerful predictor of life expectancy. Prosperous zip codes boast a significantly higher proportion of degree holders (36%) than distressed ones (8%).
  • This gap further deepens in the average distressed county, where more residents lack a high school diploma than hold a college degree. The same basic relationship holds across other indicators of health and happiness, including heart disease, diabetes, and mental welfare. Visit the stories tab for more on the connection between economic well-being and health outcomes.


The DCI provides a window into the importance of place and how it shapes lives. It illuminates how economic, social, and racial divides intertwine with each other at the neighborhood scale with far-reaching consequences. The DCI’s salience across the defining economic and social issues of our time makes it a valuable tool for academics, policymakers, businesses, civil society, the media, and anyone with a stake in understanding how the American experience differs from place to place.