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5 Places Where the Rich Got Richer -- Mostly on the Government's Dime

In a few islands of prosperity, Americans are flourishing. This is where -- and why.

This story originally appeared at Salon

Census Bureau data released recently shows how five of America’s wealthiest counties have gotten wealthier while most of the rest of the country endures foreclosures, joblessness and recession.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has zeroed in on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans who dominate politics, the geography of American wealth and poverty displays a slightly more complicated picture. Some of the country’s richest counties are flourishing as bastions of the upper middle class or just plain rich — but not necessarily of the super rich. These are already well-to-do areas where median income has grown since the recession began in 2007. In this sample, only one, Rockland County, N.Y., is partially fueled by Wall Street money.

The others, selected for geographic and economic diversity,  embody the contradictions of a country that often rejects government rhetorically while embracing it practically.

In Loudoun County, Va., many are benefiting from ever more privatized government and military spending by the federal government.

In Wyoming, Gillette County makes much of its money from the extraction of low-sulfur coal made commercially profitable by the Clean Air Act.

Fayette County, Ga., and Rockwall County, Texas, are wellsprings of the Tea Party movement. Though the government funded the mortgages in their suburbs and paid for the highways that connect them, many residents in these areas persist in believing that their success has little to do with government.

In so many ways, we all pay for America’s few economic bright spots.


1. Loudoun County is  the wealthiest county in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and has the highest median income of any county in the nation: $116,802 per household. Among the richest fifth of the county households income has grown 11.5 percent since 2007.

As in much of the region, federal spending has provided it an economic buffer throughout the recession, funding a military-industrial complex on steroids, and a high-tech industry that has helped numerous localities weather the downturn.

Efforts to preserve Loudoun’s rural areas have bolstered the county’s upper-income character by keeping poorer people out and housing prices up, according to University of Washington urban historian Margaret O’Mara. Other suburbs in the Washington region, like the largely black Prince George’s County, Md., have  not fared as well

The recession has made it all the more clear that government and big business, and not some mythical free market, picks winners and losers.

“If you’re out in Loudoun County, you get far enough out into the suburbs, the presence of the government recedes, and people get more and more libertarian,” says O’Mara. Residents like to think they have nothing to do with the government, she says, “but they do. If you’re looking at economic dynamism, it’s government assisted. Whether you’re an investment banker, or a defense contractor, or working in the aerospace industry, government investment is the underpinning that’s driving vitality.”

In September, a  study by the Project on Government Oversight found that in 33 of 35 job categories, the government paid billions more to private companies than they would have paid government employees to do the work — on average, about twice more.

The July 2010 Washington Post  series “Top Secret America” uncovered a vast new security machine created in the wake of Sept. 11. Nationwide, the Post counted 1,271 government entities and 1,931 private companies working on counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence, employing 854,000 people holding top-secret security clearance, 265,000 of them private contractors. The Post found that contractors often pay employees twice as much as the government, and they often poach the most experienced public sector employees. Taxpayers then foot a bigger bill twice, as workers get paid a large private sector salary while receiving a government pension.

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