Distressed Communities

Introduction to the Distressed Communities Index (DCI)

The Distressed Communities Index (DCI) examines economic well-being at the zip code level in order to provide a detailed view of the divided landscape of American prosperity. When we consider the health of the U.S. economy only in aggregate terms, we miss out on the textured—and deeply uneven—story of how national growth and prosperity lift up, or leave behind, individual communities and the residents who call them home. The DCI is therefore an attempt to understand the spatial distribution of U.S. economic well-being. It is a lens through which we can evaluate where and for whom the country truly lives up to its promise as a land of opportunity.

This is the fourth edition of the DCI, which was first launched in 2015. Leading national and local news publications rely on the DCI to contextualize uneven economic conditions across the country. Non-profit organizations and state and local governments utilize the DCI to target services and programs supporting distressed communities. Healthcare providers, academics, and private businesses incorporate the DCI into their work. At the national level, the DCI is used to inform federal policies to forge a more balanced and equitable geography of national economic growth.

7 metrics and 5 tiers of communities

The chart displays average values for the seven component metrics of the DCI across the five tiers of communities, here defined at the zip code level. Hover over a metric or tier to explore more.

The index combines seven distinct and complementary socioeconomic indicators into a single score that depicts how economic well-being in a community compares to its peers. The DCI is calculated at four different levels of geography, each scale revealing its own insights about the U.S. economy: zip codes, counties, cities, and congressional districts. Within each level, places are sorted into quintiles based on their performance on the index: prosperous, comfortable, mid-tier, at risk, and distressed.

About the DCI

The centerpiece of the DCI is an interactive map that allows users to explore data at the zip code, county, and congressional district levels by state. The DCI is derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Business Patterns and American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates for the 2014-2018 period. It covers nearly 25,500 zip codes and 99 percent of the U.S. population.

The nation’s longest-ever economic expansion came to a grinding halt in 2020, just as the benefits of robust and prolonged growth had finally begun to reach many marginalized workers and communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has once again exposed deep fractures in our nation’s social and economic well-being, disproportionately affecting the most disadvantaged Americans and hitting communities of color the hardest. The events of this year have provided brutal reminders that the terms of the American experience are still too often dictated by race, place, and inequality. Since 2000, many inequities that cut deep across the map of the United States have persisted. The pandemic and associated economic fallout laid these inequalities painfully bare. At this moment of national introspection and upheaval, we hope this edition of the DCI gives Americans a chance to step back, consider where we have been, and use those insights to inform our future.

Interested in learning more about your community? Explore the map here.

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