A new map of metropolitan areas highlights stark contrasts that go beyond unemployment figures

With the U.S. economy still pulling itself out of a recession and the European Union on the brink of its own catastrophic collapse, the idea of economic security may seem like an extinct concept. Things are undoubtedly bad all over the U.S., but the badness is highly uneven, with some areas faring far better – dare we say more prosperously – than others. A new interactive map from the Urban Institute highlights the geography of economic security in the U.S., focusing on the 100 most populous metropolitan areas.

By combining data on unemployment, declines in home values in recent years, housing affordability and the rate of serious mortgage delinquency, the map offers a more robust look at the interrelated elements affecting economic security in the country’s metro areas, assigning letter grades and numeric rankings.

“We wanted to look at how their futures vary. It’s not just one story,” says Margery Turner. She’s vice president for research at the Urban Institute, and came up with the idea for the map.

Turner argues that this multi-dimensional approach shows how the recession and recovery is affecting the entire population of the region, not just certain segments. Take Washington D.C., for example.

“If you just looked at unemployment, you’d think the region was doing quite well,” says Turner. “Even for people at the bottom of the skill ladder wages are looking pretty good.” Foreclosures also aren’t too bad. But when you factor in rents and housing affordability, the picture changes dramatically. “Compared to what a low skilled worker can earn, the Washington region is a difficult place to balance the budget. This combination of factors really captures the reality.”

An interesting element of the map is the ability to change the weighting of each of the four factors. By default each is set to 25 percent, but if you’re really more interested in how housing affordability affects a metro area’s economic security, you can bring its value up and push the others down and the map re-ranks accordingly. For example, the worst performing metro for housing affordability alone is Honolulu, but when all factors are evenly weighted, the worst is Las Vegas-Paradise.

Turner says that an important element of the map is its focus on metropolitan areas. She says that by taking a wider view makes more sense for addressing the problems faced by often interlinked regions of cities and suburbs.

“A lot of people, when they talk about urban problems, they’re thinking too narrow. The central city is an old fashioned idea,” she says. “We need to move away from a 1960s definition of what is urban.”

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