The Distressed Communities Index (DCI)—a data tool and interactive map ranking communities’ economic well-being—provides a holistic measure of a place’s economic performance, and shows a country in which the distribution of economic growth and prosperity remains deeply uneven across communities.
The DCI provides researchers with an eye-opening interactive index revealing detailed information on who lives in different communities, and what conditions are like. It is a powerful tool for demonstrating how economic, social, and racial divides overlap and reinforce each other, with serious consequences. For instance, we find that the racial divides underpinning the DCI remain soberingly stark—with the Black and Native American shares of the population in communities rising as economic well-being declines, and the white and Asian shares rising as economic well-being improves. Additionally, by lining up county-level health statistics with county DCI scores, we effectively showcase the outsized toll the pandemic took on already vulnerable areas. Altogether, the DCI proves useful across industry groups and researchers—from healthcare analysts to affordable housing providers, companies seeking to cultivate inclusive supply chains, state/local governments and nonprofits targeting grants, and reporters looking for economic insights.
Ultimately, the DCI matters because place matters. It offers a lens through which to interpret many aspects of our complex society, and it helps people understand the world around them and see pathways to make it better.
The goal of the DCI is to offer an exceptionally granular look at the economic conditions of nearly every American community down to the zip-code level. The challenges of achieving that are twofold: first in obtaining the appropriate data to measure economic well-being at such local scales, and then displaying that information in an easily accessible and flexible way—not only for other researchers, but more importantly for anyone interested in learning about their local communities (from policymakers to community activists to students.)
Flexibility is key in a data visualization like this to ensure it reaches the broadest audience possible. For that reason, the data is available at the zip code, county, and congressional district levels. A key challenge this year was being able to provide the statistics at the congressional district level, given that redistricting has occurred for the next Congress and Census has yet to provide a publicly available shapefile with the latest boundaries. Instead, we relied on each state’s official files and a crosswalk process that facilitated the interpolation of census tract data to the combined congressional district files. This resulted in a unique and highly valuable data source for new federal lawmakers and their staff as they enter into the new legislative session in early 2023.
Yet, simply providing the data itself is not sufficient for truly helping a user understand what the data means. The data must be put into context, which is a challenge when the typical state has thousands of zip codes or dozens of counties to which a place can be compared. Instead of a simple pop-up box that lists out statistics, the most relevant and interesting data points for a community of interest are populated below the map with visually pleasing graphics that allow for easy comparison among the other communities a user may be familiar with. This is not only done for the most topline results but also down to the seven individual building blocks of data that go into creating the overall DCI score.
All of these elements required the close coordination between researchers and design team members to truly deliver a useful and engaging data interactive. This development process between both sides of the equation—the creative and the analytical—is what helped deliver a solid product that was stronger by being a visually engaging product and one that offers true insight into communities all across America.
Our latest edition of the DCI provides new insights into the spatial distribution of economic well-being as the nation headed into the economic and social volatility brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the top, we find prosperous communities booming in population and powering the lion’s share of the nation’s growth in new jobs and businesses. At the bottom, we see distressed communities—home to nearly 50 million people—still struggling to reap the benefits of the longest period of sustained economic growth in U.S. history.
We also illuminated how health and economic well-being are intricately linked. From co-morbidities and pre-existing conditions to mortality rates before and after COVID, measures of physical well-being break cleanly along the quintiles of local economic well-being established by the DCI. For instance, by utilizing new DCI data, we find that counties with high levels of economic distress saw elevated mortality rates and significantly lower rates of vaccination against COVID-19 than their more prosperous counterparts. In fact, mortality from COVID was nearly twice as high in per capita terms in distressed counties as it was in prosperous ones.
Nationwide, the DCI reveals a recurring theme: that economic well-being varies tremendously from one zip code to the next. It uncovers a mosaic of social and economic segregation that define how we live, from Connecticut to Southeast Michigan and Houston to Los Angeles.