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Urban and rural households enjoyed similar income gains in 2015 (Corrected)

Ethanol Industry Threatened By Midwest Drought Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Correction: This article originally reported that urban households had seen their median incomes rise in 2015, while incomes in rural areas fell. But that appears to have reflected a statistical anomaly in the Current Population Survey. More reliable data released later in the week by the American Community Survey — another program of the Census Bureau — found that median household income in rural areas gained 3.4 percent, while urban and suburban households gained 3.6 percent. The text below has been corrected.


Earlier this week, the Census Bureau released data on income and poverty has good news for almost everyone. The data, the result of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, shows the first significant growth in average household incomes in almost a decade — 5.4 percent between 2014 and 2015 — with all races, age groups, and regions of the country enjoying gains.

But it appeared to show a big gap between the gains of urban and rural households. It reported that households outside of metropolitan areas (which I'll slightly imprecisely call rural) saw their incomes drop by 2 percent, while suburban households gained 4 percent and urban households gained 7.3 percent.

It seemed like a big deal, so I wrote an article about it.

Unfortunately for me — but fortunately for people in rural areas — it wasn't true.

What actually happened is that the Census Bureau changed how it defined rural households (technically, households outside of a metropolitan area) between 2014 and 2015. As a result, the 2014 statistics were measuring the incomes of different households than the 2015 statistics. Unsurprisingly, that resulted in a big apparent change. But this didn't reflect changes in anyone's income, it was just a statistical anomaly.

Later in the week, the Census Bureau also released statistics from a separate survey called the American Community Survey. This survey was larger and didn't make a big change in the way it defined urban and rural households, making it more reliable for this purpose. And it found there was hardly any difference between rural and non-rural households. Rural households saw their incomes gain by 3.4 percent, while non-rural households gained 3.6 percent.

This recovery isn’t like other recent ones

I was inclined to believe the original Census numbers because they were consistent with a trend I’ve reported on before: The current recovery is seeing big cities reap the largest economic gains. That was a big change from the economic boom of the 1990s, which saw less populous areas gaining more.

Javier Zarracina / Vox.com

In the past, smaller counties tended to grow faster than larger counties. This made a certain amount of sense — large counties like Los Angeles or Dallas were already expensive and crowded places to live, so it was easier for economic growth to happen in smaller towns or outlying suburbs.

But in the latest recovery, the pattern has reversed. The largest counties saw the fastest growth in jobs, with Los Angeles County, Miami-Dade County, and Kings County (Brooklyn) leading the way. Meanwhile, the least populous counties have been suffering the weakest recovery in decades.

But while major urban areas are seeing larger job gains, that's apparently not translating into big differences in household incomes.