- Texas cuts into the East Coast – West Coast rivalry, claiming 6 spots of the top 20
- California has the highest concentration of highly prosperous large cities
- Only 11 out of more than 300 cities have registered improvements across all prosperity indicators between 2000 and 2016
So which is the best city in the U.S.? Ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers. To each their own, of course, but most of us would agree that a city has to be capable of progress, and vitality is – ehm – vital, if it is to be considered attractive in the long run. After all, a city must be better today than it was yesterday but also have the momentum to reach a bit further tomorrow to keep itself on the radar. This narrows the circle enough to get us somewhere.
We looked at six indicators of prosperity in U.S. cities with populations exceeding 100,000 to see how they’ve changed between 2000 and 2016 according to U.S. Census data and single out the ones that have made the most progress overall. For this purpose, we ranked these 303 cities by the magnitude of proportional changes that affected their population, median income, home values, the share of inhabitants holding a higher education degree, poverty rate and unemployment rate. The final prosperity ranking was set up based on the combined value of the individual ranks obtained in these six fields.
Check out our interactive map below to see the top 20 most prosperous cities and the improvements they have shown in each of the six prosperity indicators from 2000 to 2016:
By looking at the top 20 most prosperous cities in the U.S. on a map, we can’t help but notice that the East Coast–West Coast battle is on yet again. Although that hardly comes as a shock. More surprising is that Texas alone is represented by no less than 6 cities in the top 20, one more than California – or in other words, as many as the entire West Coast combined. The fact that not a single city from a landlocked state has made it to the shortlist is also some food for thought.
What do the best of them have that the others don’t?
Since we mentioned Texas – it’s enough to look at the highest-ranking city to get a clue… During the time period we analyzed in our study, U.S.-wide crude oil production has seen a 50% upswing. That is a staggering growth, especially considering that production figures had been plummeting in the first half of these 17 years, and after bottoming out in 2008 it only took 7 years for the U.S. oil industry to not only recover, but even come within a hair’s breadth to repeating its all-time high recorded in 1970. By comparison, reaching the 1970 peak from the same level as the 2008 low point took more than 23 years. And as Texas is responsible for more than one-third of the nation total crude oil output, this sudden increase in the petroleum industry’s activity may give a hint to why the Midland-Odessa area, one of the main employment hubs in the Permian Basin had some of the lowest unemployment rates in Texas for years, and how it has put busy metropolises like Los Angeles, Seattle or even New York City to shame in our ranking.
Washington, DC took second place, but although it has shown great improvements in terms of incomes and educated workforce, it’s really the bold home price increases that propelled the nation’s capital all the way to the podium. The limited pool of choices combined with a rising demand is driving this phenomenon, which has turned DC into an overvalued market. Although, as local market experts argue, the pressure that has been blowing the housing bubble in recent times is weakening. One possible explanation for this is that prices have reached a point where buyers are starting to lose their willingness to compromise and prefer to wait out in expectation of top quality for their money – something increasingly difficult to come by as the inventory ages.
The last place on the podium is occupied by Charleston, SC – and note that the city’s next-door neighbor, North Charleston is also in the top 5. The area is known for a very strong presence of the aerospace industry: the Charleston International Airport aviation complex includes the Charleston County Aviation Authority (CCAA), tenant firms at the Charleston International Airport terminals, the neighboring U.S. Air Force component of Joint Base Charleston, and the adjacent Boeing South Carolina complex. An economic impact study released by The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce in 2015 shows that the aviation cluster had doubled in four years (2011-2015), accounting for 40% of the area’s Gross Metropolitan Product at the time.
Fontana is also worth mentioning at this point, as the city has come a long way since its foundation about a century ago and it’s still growing aggressively. From a small agricultural town it has turned into what’s now one of the most important regional hubs for the trucking industry. The population soared from roughly 128,000 in 2000 to more than 205,000 in 2016; and during some of these years, the city was among the top fastest-growing in the nation. However, the fast growth of its educated population, or the local real estate market’s reaction to this progress is not necessarily what makes Fontana’s high ranking stand out… It has much more to do with the fact that Fontana is one of the most prosperous cities in spite of having a 3% higher poverty rate and a 18% higher unemployment rate than in 2000.
Combatting Poverty and Unemployment – Important for Wellbeing, Not Enough for Prosperity
Fontana’s case proves a point regarding prosperity in general. Not all indicators need to show improvements for a city to be prosperous. In fact, that’s an extremely rare case. This may not seem that obvious by looking at just the top 20, even though only 7 of them have shown improvements in all six fields. If we were to eliminate all cities from the analysis that registered a decline in either of the six indicators, it would have left us with only 11 cities – rendering it pointless to set up even a top 10 list. Since we mentioned this aspect, here’s the very short list of cities that have seen improvements (or stagnation at the very least) across all six prosperity indicators:
The Most Prosperous U.S. Cities 2000 – 2016
Cities with positive change in all prosperity indicators
The same is true, of course, for big improvements in one indicator. If you isolate one indicator and look at the best performers, you’ll always find cities near the top that have a low overall prosperity ranking. Remaining at unemployment and poverty, common sense dictates that finding solutions for these problems is synonymous with prosperity. However, even though Salinas, CA, Abilene, TX and Shreveport, LA have struck some of the biggest blows on unemployment nationwide, they didn’t even make it in the top 100 most prosperous overall.
For details about all 303 cities included in the analysis, expand the interactive table below. Click on the column headers to order the entries by the partial values, and use the search bar to filter the results.
The Most Prosperous U.S. Cities 2000 – 2016
The battle of the giants – Ranking the largest cities by prosperity
It’s worth noting that 12 out of the top 20 most prosperous cities have less than 300,000 residents. However, since we compared proportional changes, it’s arguably more newsworthy that Washington, DC, Miami, Seattle, Fort Worth, El Paso, Baltimore, and even Los Angeles and New York City are among the most prosperous in spite of their large size.
Either way, we wanted to see what a top 20 list would look like if we only compared cities of the same weight-class. We repeated the same analysis, only this time we raised the threshold to compare cities with at least 300,000 residents. Here’s what we found:
And that’s one way to push New York City from 11th place onto the podium… Other than some instant improvements in the ranking, though, eliminating the smaller cities shouldn’t bring much of a surprise – at least the first eight entries should look familiar unless you skipped the first part of the article. However, Baltimore’s case may raise some eyebrows as the city scored surprisingly high considering the fact that it has been struggling with a declining population for a long time. Baltimore’s population has shrunk by 5 percent just since the turn of the century, but it has lost about a third of its population since the 1950s in an almost consistent decline. Baltimore County, on the other hand, is growing, having registered a 9.5 percent increase from 2000 to 2016. Property taxes double as you enter the city, so it makes much financial sense – especially for young professionals – to choose the commute over a hefty tax bill.
As you inch downward, however, Boston and Denver complete the top-10, having climbed 12 positions each. Both cities have seen their poverty rates go higher by quite a lot (in Boston the unemployment rate also got worse), but the improvements in home value and the share of the educated population far outweighed these setbacks, earning them a place among the most prosperous large cities. (A random thought: one could argue that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the seesawing of these indicators, although it’s always a good idea to investigate each individual case before holding gentrification responsible for this phenomenon, the issue being generally more localized, affecting only certain neighborhoods and never an entire city.)
We have mentioned Long Beach and Atlanta above as members of the exclusive club of cities with improvements across all six indicators, so we pretty much expected them to make this list too – sure enough, they claimed the 11th and 16thplaces, respectively. California has a much stronger presence on this list, by the way, with six cities in the top-20, more than any other state, or in fact, the entire Northeast combined.
- Our study includes all U.S. cities with a population of 100K or more in 2016. Data from 2000 is sourced from U.S. Census Summary Files, while the 2016 data from the U.S. Census ACS 5-year estimates and data.
- In order to rank the cities by prosperity, we have taken into consideration the proportional changes that took place from 2000 to 2016 in each of the following indicators:
- Median household income (adjusted for inflation to 2018 Dollars)
- Median value of owner-occupied housing (adjusted for inflation to 2018 Dollars)
- Share of population with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher (education attainment for the population 25 years and over)
- Share of the population below poverty line (considering only the population for whom the poverty status is determined)
- Share of unemployed population (considering only the population in labor force – 16 years and over)
- An individual ranking was set up taking into account each of the above-mentioned indicators. We considered increases in population, income, home values and in the share of the population holding at least a bachelor’s degree, and decreases in the share of poverty and share of the unemployed population as indicators of prosperity.
- The final prosperity ranking was set taking into account the combined value of all the individual ranks obtained in all 6 fields.
- Due to changes to the Census Bureau’s data-acquisition methodology from 2000 to 2016 (or lack of historical data), leading to inconsistent results, the following cities have been removed from the analysis: Elk Grove, CA; Jurupa Valley City, CA; Centennial City, CO; Miami Gardens, FL; Macon-Bibb County, GA; Sandy Springs, GA; Louisville, KY. New Orleans, LA was also eliminated, as the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the area in 2005, make the results incomparable with the rest of the cities in the analysis.