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The grass really is greener on the other side of the fence in some places around the country. According to a Census Bureau report, U.S. household income inequality has grown by 18 percent since 1967, although this trend has slowed in recent years.
Wealth disparity is also proving to be a hot topic during the 2012 election year, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney igniting criticism that his high net worth puts him out of touch with average Americans while the Obama administration struggles with the politically charged debate over how the country’s rich should be taxed.
Although the existence of wealth gaps is a major characteristic of the national economy, when income disparity is analyzed over smaller regions some areas show considerable drop-offs in wealth between places that sit side-by-side.
To get a sense of where these geographic income differences are the most extreme, CNBC.com analyzed Census data, using five-year estimates of average annual household income by county — the smallest granularity available — from the American Community Survey. We looked at the 200 counties with the highest average annual income and compared this metric to adjacent counties to see which had the largest relative difference in wealth. The final ranking number represents the size of this difference as a percentage of the poorer county's average annual income. This figure essentially shows the proportion that incomes in the poorer county would have to rise in order to be on par with its richer neighbor.
Counties with populations under 500 were omitted, as were counties with significant water boundaries, such as the country’s richest county, Nantucket, which has an average annual household income of $137,811.
So, where are the biggest wealth gaps in the country? Click ahead for the list.
By Paul Toscano
Posted 29 March 2012
Wealth gap: 103.35%
Borden avg. annual income: $93,417
Mitchell avg. annual income: $45,939
In northwestern Texas, two rural and sparsely populated counties are also quite different when it comes to annual income, with Borden County more than doubling the average household incomes in neighboring Mitchell County. With a population of less than 650 people as of 2010, Borden has had a fortunate economic history: It was home to the inventor of condensed milk, Gail Borden Jr., after whom the county is named. Then in 1949, oil was discovered there, yielding several hundred million barrels and supplementing the incomes of the area’s farmers and ranchers. The county has seen its population decline since the 1950s, while the average annual household income in Borden now stands at $93,417.
To the southeast, Mitchell County has a considerably larger population, but residents have much lower annual incomes, averaging $45,939. Mitchell’s median income is $37,260, according to the Census Bureau, while Borden’s stands at $58,409, suggesting a greater income disparity within Borden than compared to Mitchell.
Wealth gap: 106.91%
Albemarle avg. annual income: $92,414
Buckingham avg. annual income: $44,663
In central Virginia, the country’s ninth-largest wealth gap is on the border of Albemarle and Buckingham counties, at 106.91 percent. Located as an enclave within Albemarle County is the independent city of Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia and former home of two U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Although associated with Charlottesville, Jefferson’s landmark Monticello estate is technically in Albemarle County. According to the county, the area is desirable due to its “excellent school system, low taxes, skilled and educated workforce and a wealth of cultural, historic and recreational amenities in a beautiful setting.” The county has also implemented an “Economic Vitality Action Plan” to build on its relative wealth, while median household incomes stand at $64,847, suggesting a disproportionate number of wealthy individuals.
Buckingham County, on the other hand, has been relatively less fortunate than its northern neighbor. The county’s average annual income stands at $44,663 with a mean of $34,720, according to the Census Bureau. In Buckingham County, 43.3 percent of residents are reported to draw income from Social Security, while that number drops to 26.1 percent in Albemarle. Income drawn from investments is also disparate between the two counties, with 39.5 percent of residents in Albemarle reporting this type of income, versus 15.4 percent in Buckingham.
However, although Buckingham is actively looking to expand economically through tax policy and fiscal responsibility, county administrator Rebecca S. Carter said that “preserving the desired rural characteristics of the county” was also among the government’s priorities. Generally, a focus on rural lifestyle and activities brings with it a lower income base, as seen in Buckingham.
Wealth gap: 109.68%
Harris avg. annual income: $84,697
Chambers avg. annual income: $40,393
In a wealth gap that straddles state lines, the disparity between Harris County, Ga., and Chambers County, Ala., sees the average income of the Georgia side more than double that of the Alabama side, for a wealth gap of 109.68 percent. Harris County benefits from being near LaGrange and Columbus, Ga., which the Chamber of Commerce had dubbed “economic engines” for the county. The county benefits most from businesses and economic activity linked to tourism, agriculture and financial services, and currently offers tax credits for businesses that create more 25 or more jobs in the county through the Valley Partnership Joint Development Authority.
To the west, Chambers County has an average annual household income of $40,393, with a median income of only $31,467. According to the Census five-year estimates, Chambers has 18.9 percent of households listing no members currently employed, compared with 13.1 percent in Harris County. Chambers also reports that 38.6 percent of its households draw income from Social Security, while Harris County stands at 29.6 percent.
Wealth gap: 116.57%
Delaware avg. annual income: $110,917
Marion avg. annual income: $51,216
With an average household income of $110,917, Delaware County is Ohio’s richest, while Marion County comes in at 69th out of 88, with average annual income at $51,216. Delaware County has been one of the nation’s most successful over the past decade, with a spike in population of 58.4 percent from 2000 to 2010. The county is part of the Columbus metro area, which boasts a diversified economy with several major companies located in the city, including Nationwide Mutual Insurance, American Electric Power (AEP), Limited Brands (LTD) and Big Lots (BIG).
To the north is Marion County, farther away from Columbus. Compared to Delaware’s significant growth rate, Marion actually underperformed the state as a whole between 2000 and 2010; its population grew by only 0.4 percent, compared with 1.6 percent for Ohio as a whole. Marion’s median income of $40,511, however, indicates a much smaller wealth disparity within the county than in Delaware County, which has a median income of $87,908.
Wealth gap: 127.36%
Los Alamos avg. annual income: $117,400
Rio Arriba avg. annual income: $51,637
The biggest wealth gap in New Mexico is also the sixth-largest in the nation, between Los Alamos County and Rio Arriba County in the state’s north. Los Alamos, the state’s smallest county and once administered by the Federal government, is best known as the home for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was originally founded to administer the Manhattan Project. The presence of the lab, which now focuses on national security, environment and other scientific endeavors, draws highly skilled workers and Ph.D.s, who require significantly higher wages than average.
To the north, Rio Arriba County is much larger, sparsely populated and considerably less wealthy, with an average annual household income that is less than 44 percent of Los Alamos’. There is also a large disparity in median incomes between the counties, where in Los Alamos the number stands at $103,643, versus Rio Arriba’s $41,437.
Wealth gap: 131.31%
Mineral avg. annual income: $98,901
Saguache avg. annual income: $42,756
The border between Mineral and Saguache marks the division between Colorado’s third-richest county and the state’s second poorest. The income gap comes to $56,145, which is more than 131 percent of Saguache’s total average annual income. Unlike many of the other counties on this list, Mineral and Saguache are relatively similar when it comes to demographics. Both are sparsely populated, with less than 1,000 people residing in Mineral County (approximately 1 per square mile) and less than 6,000 in Saguache (approximately 2 per square mile). Both counties are focused on ranching, agriculture and tourism based on their rich histories, but the sparse populations limit the potential for heavy commercial activity.
Mineral County, which was named after the valuable minerals found in its mountains and streams, has several economic development projects in the works, including conservation initiatives and nonprofit development projects. With a median income of $53,438, the numbers suggest that Mineral County has a disproportionate number of high earners, compared with Saguache’s median of $30,430, reflecting the less fortunate economic situation of its residents.
Wealth gap: 131.63%
Williamson avg. annual income: $114,801
Hickman avg. annual income: $49,562
Located in the Nashville metro area, the adjacent Williamson and Hickman counties represent the fourth-largest wealth gap in the country. The difference in annual income between the counties is $65,239 per year. Williamson County, located between downtown Nashville and Hickman County, is home to such large corporations as Community Health Systems (CYH), Healthways (HWAY), Provident Music Group (a division of Sony) and is Nissan’s North American headquarters.
Hickman County, on the other hand, has a significantly smaller population and is far more dependent on agriculture, with 25 percent of its land zoned for agriculture as of 2010. Compare that to Williamson, which has a highly diversified economy, with 13 percent of businesses involved in health care, 13 percent in professional services and 12 percent in retail, while only 0.18 percent of enterprises are involved in agricultural production.
Wealth gap: 143.39%
Goochland avg. annual income: $118,743
Cumberland avg. annual income: $48,788
Virginia is home to several of the largest wealth gaps in the nation, but none is wider than between Goochland County and Cumberland County, located outside the state’s capital, Richmond. In Goochland, residents draw an average of $118,743 per year, while in Cumberland County to the southwest, residents make an average of $48,788 annually. Goochland’s median income is also much higher, at $79,574, while Cumberland stands at $40,143, suggesting a narrower band of incomes for Cumberland County and a relatively high number of wealthy households in Goochland.
Differences in how income is made are also apparent, most dramatically in supplemental Social Security income and cash from public assistance. Few households in Goochland draw income from public assistance — 0.2 percent, according to Census Bureau data — while 1.9 percent report supplemental security income. In Cumberland, 4.5 percent of households report receiving public assistance, while 8.6 percent are recipients of supplemental social security.
Wealth gap: 170.7%
Westchester avg. annual income: $128,127
Bronx avg. annual income: $47,325
In the United States, New York is usually an anomaly when it comes to economic activity, and it is no different when it comes to wealth gaps. The biggest disparity of wealth arises from Bronx County (one of New York’s five boroughs), which has an average annual household income of $47,325, while the county to the north, Westchester, boasts annual incomes of $128,127. The wealth gap between the counties stands at $80,802, a difference of 170.7 percent when compared to average annual incomes in the Bronx.
Although the two counties are close geographically, the dynamics within each area are starkly different. In the Bronx, households with only one person working stands at 41.6 percent, while in Westchester the number drops to 32.5 percent. In the Bronx, homes where both spouses work stands at only 15.3 percent, while this proportion more than doubles to 33.4 percent in Westchester. Westchester also has more than 32 percent of its households drawing income from investments and 1.9 percent from public assistance, while the proportion drops to 8.8 percent for investments and rises to 7.9 percent for public assistance in Bronx County.
In addition, if ranked independently, the border of the Bronx to New York County (Manhattan) to the south would represent the third-highest wealth gap in the country, with the average annual income standing at $122,620, for a gap of 159.1 percent.
Wealth gap: 171.8%
Pitkin avg. annual income: $134,267
Lake avg. annual income: $49,400
From county to county across the United States, there is no area with a larger disparity of wealth than between Pitkin and Lake counties. Pitkin County, home to the upscale ski resort town Aspen, has the second-highest average annual household income in the country, behind only Nantucket County, Mass. Pitkin’s average annual income comes in at $134,267 per household, according to the Census Bureau, although the county’s median annual income is only $64,502, suggesting a relatively large income disparity. In fact, according to a February 2012 report from the Census, Pitkin County ranked 5th nationwide among counties for the highest level of income inequality.
Adjacent to Pitkin County to the east, Colorado’s Lake County is known more for being home to Mount Elbert, the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains and the highest incorporated city in the country, Leadville. With an average household income that would need to increase nearly three times over to match that of neighboring Pitkin, the wealth gap is $84,867. Although Lake County’s economic heyday was in the late 1800s during the Colorado silver boom, the future is rosy for the area, with the potential reopening of the Climax Molybdenum mine by Freeport-McMoRan, which was an economic boon until its closing in 1986. Although the reopening of the mine in 2012 depends heavily on unpredictable world prices, Lake County and the city of Leadville are looking to increase economic activity by refocusing efforts on tourism and a rich history, in hopes of pushing up the fortunes of its populace in the process.