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updated 5/4/2009 5:42:16 PM ET 2009-05-04T21:42:16

These are difficult times. Consumer confidence is plummeting, personal income is slipping and unemployment rates have spiraled up to double digits in several states.

But the degree of difficulty varies across America. Some communities are experiencing the recession's full fury — Detroit is a case in point — while others are still remarkably comfortable.

The Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Va., is the prime example of the latter. Its combination of elevated incomes and high-end homes has earned McLean first place in bizjournals' new rankings of America's wealth centers.

Close behind are several other suburban communities with similarly impressive economic profiles, led by Lake Forest, Ill.; Saratoga, Calif.; Potomac, Md.; and Darien, Conn.

Bizjournals created a 10-part formula to analyze the relative affluence of 2,065 cities, incorporated towns and unincorporated urban areas with populations of 15,000 or more.

The study was designed to identify the nation's wealth centers, defined as places blessed with high incomes, expensive homes, strong educational levels and widespread ownership of stocks, rental properties and motor vehicles.

Wealthy suburbs
Bizjournals obtained raw data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005-2007 American Community Survey, the most recent source for federal statistics at the local level. All figures are for specific municipalities, not for the broader metropolitan areas to which they belong.

McLean, which sits west of the nation's capital along the Potomac River, emerges as the nation's top wealth center because of its consistently high ratings across the board. It ranks among the 10 leading communities in eight of the study's 10 categories.

McLean's median household income of $156,292 is more than triple the national median of $50,007. (A median is a midpoint, with half of all incomes higher, and half lower.) Thirty-six percent of its households have annual incomes above $200,000, nearly 10 times the U.S. rate of 3.7 percent. And 79 percent of its adults hold bachelor's degrees, compared to 27 percent nationwide.

The runner-up, Lake Forest, is an affluent suburb north of Chicago along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Five percent of its households have annual incomes of more than $1.15 million.

Rounding out the top five are Saratoga, Calif., which is located outside San Jose; Potomac, Md., another Washington, D.C., suburb; and Darien, Conn., a bedroom community where many commute to work in New York. All three have median household incomes that surpass $135,000 and median home values that exceed $870,000.

Beyond means of most Americans
The affluence of the nation's top 10 wealth centers, taken as a group, is light years beyond the lifestyles of most Americans:

  • The collective per capita income of the 10 cities is $79,500. That's triple the national average of $26,178. (Per capita income is the average amount of money earned by each resident of a community in a given year.)
  • Thirty-six percent of all top-10 households earn more than $200,000 per year, dwarfing the national average, 3.7 percent.
  • Two of every five homes in the major wealth centers contain at least nine rooms. The comparable figure for the entire country is just 8.3 percent.

The bizjournals study is accompanied by a list of the 250 communities that hold the highest scores for affluence.

Even the final community on that list, No. 250 Inglewood-Finn Hill, Wash., is worthy of being billed as a wealth center, given its median household income of $90,301 and median home value of $411,400. It outranks 87 percent of all cities analyzed by bizjournals.

Last in the overall rankings, sitting in 2,065th place, is Camden, N.J., which occupies the bank of the Delaware River opposite Philadelphia.

Camden's median household income of $23,154 is 85 percent below the corresponding figure of $156,292 in top-rated McLean. That means seven typical families in Camden would have to pool their earnings to equal the financial clout of a single household in McLean.

The other indicators for Camden are equally unfortunate, including its per capita income ($11,578), share of households with incomes above $200,000 (0.1 percent) and adults with college degrees (6.1 percent).

Also in the bottom five in bizjournals' rankings are East St. Louis, Ill.; Chester, Pa.; San Juan, Texas; and Opelousas, La.

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