The wealthiest counties in America: Money on the move

The list of the fifty richest municipalities in the U.S. has inspired a lot of quick analysis of the country's current economic demographics. But the list's greatest value may be the glimpse that it offers into America's past and the path that it suggests for the future migration of workers and capital.

America's urban development was initially tied to the flow of goods and services. For example, New York City was a natural spot for traders coming from England and the Caribbean. Moreover, its location on the banks of two rivers made it a perfect distribution point for goods and workers. Later, as railroads sprang up and industry developed, New York cemented its position as a central area where raw materials entered and finished products emerged.

The same is true of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and dozens of other cities that became natural meeting points for various industries and commodities. Even Los Angeles' position at the nexus of an ocean, miles of arable farmland, a sun-drenched coastline, and a flow of cheap labor could largely draw its growth and success from its location. The film industry, for example, initially moved to the area (from New York) for its endless supply of cheap lighting and open space.

When trade and industry develop, wealth usually follows, which is why America's cities also became its richest areas. However, as heavy industry has moved overseas and rapid transportation liberated workers from locations, the flow of wealth moved away from the areas that once created it.

The first step in this process was the mass transit and highways that made suburbs so attractive. For example, while New York is the second richest county in the country, many of its surrounding communities follow close behind. The continued attraction of Westchester (7), Nassau (21), Fairfield (6), Morris (9), Somerset (11), Bergen (16), Hunterdon (17), and Monmouth (50) counties suggest that the white flight and urban decline of the late twentieth century is still a factor in America's wealth distribution.

This process is even more obvious in other cities. For example, although Washington, DC, is the 22nd wealthiest county in the country, it is outstripped by its suburbs in Alexandria (12), Arlington (13), Fairfax (14), and Montgomery (15) counties. For that matter, Boston isn't even ranked in the top fifty, although nearby Norfolk (23) and Middlesex (35) counties both made the list.

With cheaper air travel and better telecommunications, money has became even more tenuously tied to location, inspiring many of America's richest citizens to move to far-flung vacation spots. For example, the wealthiest area in the country is Wyoming's Teton County, home to Jackson Hole; nearby Sublette county ranks 26. Similarly, resort areas like Florida's Collier (20), Martin (25), Monroe (27), Palm Beach (33), and Sarasota (46) counties all rank high. Even Massachusetts' distant Nantucket County made the list at 44.

While this financial flight seems to spell doom for America's former manufacturing metropolises, there may be hope on the horizon. Just as the country's industrialists and money men have increasingly become detached from their factories and offices, so its ordinary worker bees are finding housing possibilities that are far from the office. With the migration in manufacturing driving down housing prices, an opportunity is increasingly emerging for white-collar internet workers to move to cheaper areas that once housed titans of industry. What's more, with a smart grid and high-speed intercity rail promoting growth in outlying cities, it seems likely that America's demographic and economic map may continue to shift for a very long time.
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