2014’s Economic Winners and Losers

Americans may be in a dour state, with 64% saying America is on the “wrong track” in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, but economically speaking, 2014 is ending on a high note. Consumer confidence up, unemployment and gas prices are down and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is at record levels.

The year’s good news has been better in some places than others, but when you look closer at the numbers you see two big developments out of 2014: The economic recovery is more deeply rooted this year than last, and politically conservative communities did particularly well.

Looking at some of the numbers through the county types from the American Communities Project at American University’s School of Public Affairs can shed some light on the nuances.

Unemployment: Overall, more conservative, Republican leaning communities had a better 2014 when you look at joblessness.

The unemployment rate was down in every one of the ACP’s 15 county types, but the Native American Lands, Middle Suburbs and Working Class Country counties had the biggest drops – each more than 1.8 points. The Middle Suburbs and Working Class Country types voted for Mitt Romney is 2012.

The sparsely populated Native American Lands saw the biggest drop, but structurally their unemployment rate is always high and they still have the highest unemployment rate in the country.

You can see all the types on the map below:

But simply comparing last year’s unemployment rates to this year’s doesn’t express how much the recovery has taken root in the United States. A better measure is how the unemployment rates in those counties compare to the national average (October 2013 to October 2014, the latest figures available).

In 2013, 7 of the 15 county types in the ACP were at or below the national figure of 7% (that’s the seasonally unadjusted number because the county data is not seasonally adjusted). In 2014, 9 of the 15 county types in the ACP are at or below the national average of 5.5%. That’s evidence of the recovery spreading.

Where’s it spreading? Again Republican leaning places did better. The two groups that saw unemployment drop to figures at or below the national unemployment average in 2014 were Working Class Country and Middle Suburb counties. They had unemployment rates of 5.5% and 5.2% respectively.

You can see the unemployment rates and the moves in the chart below.

When you look at that chart only two types that tend to vote Republican are above the national average in unemployment – the socially conservative Evangelical Hubs are just above the national figure at 5.6% and the older Graying America counties are at 6%. All the others are below.

On the whole, the numbers indicate Republican-leaning communities are doing better with unemployment than their Democratic-leaning counterparts. That’s despite the fact that those communities tend to be more pessimistic than the nation at large.

Income: Household income data takes time to collect, the latest figures from the U.S. Census only go through 2013. Still, using those figures there are some trends of note.

For the most part, again, it is Republican leaning communities that saw better growth in their average median household income. The top five groups for income growth in the latest Census data were the Aging Farmlands, Hispanic Centers, Working Class Country, Rural Middle America and the LDS Enclaves.

All those types, except the Hispanic Centers, are reliably Republican and all saw annual household income growth of about $400 or more in 2013 – as you can see on this chart.

Overall, the data on income was good except for two possibly important exceptions. The highest earners in the American Communities Project, the Urban Suburbs and Exurbs, both saw slightly declines in their average median household income – less than $200.

Those data were an aberration compared to the previous two years, which both saw growth. And remember the income data is from 2013. Still the numbers bear watching for the next year.

The income numbers in the Urban Burbs and Exurbs could be warning signs of wage stagnation. And with more than 100 million people living in those counties, the drop in income could have big political meaning in 2015 and 2016.

On the whole, however, looking at all these figures the real question going into 2015 might be: Is this the year voters, particularly Republican voters, start to shake off some of their dour feelings about the economy?

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