The State of Pennsylvania Counties 2002

Andrew Pierce
Publication Date: 
September 1, 2002


Based on data collected by the 2000 U.S. Census, The State of Pennsylvania Counties 2002 profiles the economic experience of Pennsylvania counties in 1999 and from 1989 to 1999.

We divide Pennsylvania into nine regions based on the county groupings defined by the “Team Pennsylvania” initiative launched by Governor Ridge.

The report focuses on five economic variables. Four of these variables measure middle-class well-being – median family income, median household income, median earnings of full-time males, and median earnings of full-time females. The fifth variable, per capita income, measures average living standards.

Statewide, all Pennsylvania counties experienced growth in per capita income in the 1990s. However, this overall growth in average income masks both regional variation and gender disparity in income gains.

Whichever economic variable is used, the four suburban counties around Philadelphia occupy the top four rankings, indicating that they are the most affluent in the state. In most cases, Chester County ranks first, Montgomery County second, Bucks County third, and Delaware County fourth. Chester and Montgomery Counties each have a median family income, median household income, and per capita income from 47 to 63 percent above the statewide average.

Cumberland County and the ring of counties outside the Philadelphia metropolitan region (including Berks County and the Lehigh Valley) form a second-tier of counties based on their level of affluence. A third tier of counties based on middle-class well-being includes parts or all of several metropolitan areas – Allegheny, York, Lancaster, Butler, and Dauphin Counties. Monroe and Pike Counties, now New Jersey bedroom communities for some, are also in this second tier.

The middle ranks based on economic well-being include many Pennsylvania counties in smaller metropolitan areas.

Measured by our three income variables, the poorest Pennsylvania counties are rural Southwestern counties (Forest, Fayette, Greene, and Somerset), with Sullivan, Philadelphia (except for per capita income), Indiana, and Cambria next-lowest. Based on male and female earnings, the bottom ranks include Somerset and (for male earnings) Forest again, additional rural Southwestern counties (Clearfield, Jefferson), and some rural, central Pennsylvania counties (Bedford, Sullivan, Tioga).

Considering the changes in our five economic variables in the 1990s, the patterns across the state do not display strong regional tendencies with the exception of male full-time, year-round income.

This trend contrasts sharply with the 1980s, which were a disastrous decade for the western geographic half of Pennsylvania. In the 1980s, median household income dropped by 5 percent in the western half of Pennsylvania, more than in all but two states. In the eastern half of the state median household income rose by 18 percent. The ground lost in the western half of the state was made up in the 1990s; however, the vast majority of those counties experiencing real declines in male full-time, year-round income were in the western half of the state.

Examining the differences between trends shown in maps A8, A9, and A10 (available only as a separate download) suggest two explanations.

First, it is likely that the gains in per capita income growth across the state, in general, and in the western half of the state, in particular, were powered mostly by growth in female full-time, year-round income. This leads to the probable conclusion that the 1990s saw an increase in the number of two-wage-earner families.

Second, the rise in per-capita income growth state wide could also have been driven by an increase in the number of hours worked annually by wage earners. (For more discussion of these two trends, please see The State of Working Pennsylvania 2002) It is thus likely that both of these forces - a rise in dual-earner families and an increase in working hours - were at work in Pennsylvania in the 1990s.

In the 1990s, rural counties generally enjoyed the most rapid economic growth. Based on average rank using each of our five variables, Cameron, Potter, Beaver, and Sullivan Counties experienced the best 1990s, with Butler and Fulton close behind. Based on the same average rank, Indiana, Lycoming, Wyoming, and Warren had the most difficult 1990s, with Montour, Susquehanna, and Erie next.

Looking at median household income, Cameron, Beaver, Greene, Bedford, Elk, Lawrence, and Potter counties each performed at least 10 percentage points better than the state’s 6.3 percent growth. Cameron, Beaver, and Elk also did at least 9.8 percentage points better than the state’s 8.7 percent measured by median family income.

Only Philadelphia county saw a decline in median household and family income. Recall that Philadelphia is the only county that is also a city. As shown in The State of Working Pennsylvania 2002, many other Pennsylvania cities also saw declines in median household and family income. The decline of cities (and inner suburbs) is obscured in county data because many counties include urban, inner-suburban, and affluent suburban areas.

Based on both our county and earlier city analyses, two main place-based economic stories for Pennsylvania in the 1990s stand out:

  • Rural areas and western Pennsylvania recovered some ground after the 1980s debacle;
  • Inequities within regions appear to have grown, as indicated by city performance relative to that of the urban and metropolitan counties within which cities are located.

The full report contains regional briefs that focus on one of our nine economic regions.

This document is an on-line summary of a Keystone Research Center report. The entire report is available for download as a PDF file at the KRC Web site © 2001 Keystone Research Center