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Where and why some middle-class American families are actually getting giant raises

Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
It’s making a lot of people a lot of money.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Is America in a boom or a slump? The answer is that it depends, among other things, on where you look.

Places such as Williams County (North Dakota), Cleburne County (Arkansas), and Lea County (New Mexico) have all seen median net incomes surge in recent years, according to the latest detailed data published by the US Census Department.

What do they have in common? It turns out that many of the counties that are getting richer fastest are sitting on massive reserves of shale gas that are ripe for extraction techniques like fracking.

It’s well-documented that shale is the driving force behind North Dakota’s oil boom, but the energy industry is providing a boost in other regions, too.

Take a look at the map to see. The pink regions are shale plays—a term for regions where gas extraction is or will soon be taking place. The top 25 counties ranked by increase in median household income are colored dark purple.

The data for this analysis comes from the three-year American Community Survey, which provides average values over a sample period. (That makes it different from the regular once-a-decade US Census, which provides a snapshot at a given point in time.) The listed percentage change is from the 2008 to 2010 sample period and the 2011 to 2013 sample period. The listed median household income is for 2011 to 2013.

Here’s the complete list of the counties that fared the best:

Now, you can argue that America’s economic boom isn’t worth the costs in potential environmental damage and long-term risks, such as climate change. And you can argue that the US has a long history of commodity-driven booms and busts, and that we just happen to be in the boom phase.

In other words, it won’t last.

But it’s undeniable that the gas boom has led to sharply higher salaries for middle-skill workers, which is something that’s increasingly hard to find in the US economy. After all, the income of a typical American household is basically where it was a quarter century ago.

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