Rural America’s Highest (and Lowest) Pay

Find the rural counties with the highest average yearly compensation — and the lowest.

For the best compensation in rural America, you’d better like either snow or sand.

The best paying place to work in rural America in 2008 was on Alaska’s North Slope, where the average total compensation per job topped $98,000 a year.

In the lower 48, the best pay in rural America was in Eureka County, Nevada, where total pay in 2008 averaged just under $92,000 a year. (See chart for top 50 rural counties on the next page.)

The average compensation across the U.S. in 2008 was $56,116. Only 41 rural counties (out of 2,037) exceeded this amount.

The federal Bureau of Economic Analysis counts both pay and benefits in its measure of total pay. Compensation here includes wages, employer contributions for pension plans, insurance plans, government social insurance and bonuses. The highest compensation in the country is in New York, New York, where the average worker received $117,509 in total pay in 2008. (Remember, this includes all compensation, including bonuses — thank you, Wall Street!)

Three of the four lowest paying urban areas are in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas (in Webb, Hidalgo and Cameron counties).

The map above shows the average compensation in all rural counties. (Click on the map or here to enlarge.) The dark green counties had pay above the national average. The counties with the lowest compensation are red and pink.

The pattern here differs from the maps showing unemployment in rural America. The Great Plains states down the center of the country have had low levels of unemployment during this recession, but the figures from BEA also show these areas have low levels of compensation.

Meanwhile, the coalfield counties of southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky are always listed among the nation’s poorest, but for those who have jobs, compensation is among the highest in rural America. The heavy coal counties in those states stand out in shades of green.

The compensation map (above) is more a reflection of industry than anything else. The BEA found that in smaller counties the “mining sector had the largest rate of growth for total compensation in 2008 at 15.1 percent, while the real estate and rental and leasing sector had the largest rate of contraction at -1.1 percent.” Indeed, the counties heavily dependent on oil, gas and coal extraction appear to have the highest average compensation — thus the high pay on the North Slope.

Here are the 50 rural counties with the highest compensation in 2008.[img:ruraltop.png]

The lowest paying areas in rural America are clustered in the Plains, Midwest and South. Here are the 50 rural counties with the lowest levels of compensation per job.[img:ruralbottom.png]

Compensation gains show another pattern. Compensation in rural counties overall gained slightly more from 2007 to 2008 than in urban counties. Compensation in the least populated counties, according to BEA, grew by 3.1 percent. Compensation in the most populous counties grew by only 1.9 percent. 

BEA’s map showing where compensation grew the fastest is below. Blue counties had the highest rate of compensation growth and are concentrated in the Plains and in Appalachia.[img:compchange.jpg]

Three out of the four exurban counties with the highest compensation were in Virginia. Again, it’s hard to see a pattern in these exurban counties where total pay was the highest. Here are the 50 exurban counties with the highest total compensation.[img:Exurbshigh.png]

And here are the 50 exurban counties with the lowest compensation in 2008.[img:exurbanbottom.png]


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