Image: Golden Gate Bridge
Eric Risberg  /  AP
The Golden Gate Bridge is the gateway to California's Marin County — one of two in the state that made the list.
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updated 3/11/2010 5:00:10 PM ET 2010-03-11T22:00:10

The country may have started its long haul back to economic recovery — if recent news that consumer spending increased slightly in January is any indication. But even so, most Americans still aren't ready to brag about their paychecks.

Except, perhaps, in Loudoun County, Va., where median household incomes are higher than anywhere else in the country. This affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where families take home a median $110,643 annually, tops our list of America's 25 richest counties.

Loudoun is emblematic of the counties where the highest incomes are found. The country's riches tend to trickle away from big cities. It's not major metro areas raking in the biggest salaries; rather, it's the tony suburbs just outside big-industry centers that soak up big-city money.

Glitzy Southern California and big oil states are largely absent from the list: 19 of the 25 richest counties in the country are on the East Coast. In part, that's because our list looks at the middle incomes, and counties in the East tend to be smaller, thereby allowing for less of a spread between the richest and poorest workers.

Data for our list come from the U.S. Census Bureau, which conducts the annual American Community Survey, a smaller-scale version of the decennial census. The most recent data are from the calendar year 2008 and include 1,889 counties.

It's not surprising that workers in Loudoun do well. The federal government generates a wealth of jobs, keeping unemployment in the D.C. metro area at a low 6.2 percent (the national average is still near 10 percent). The best-paid workers from D.C. take their money home to Loudoun, where jobs have grown 4 percent between the second quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But a big chunk of that healthy income goes toward maintaining the good life. Loudoun homeowners pay a median $4,844 per year in property taxes. Tax burdens are similarly high in a lot of well-off counties.

Like Loudoun, a number of the country's wealthiest households are tightly concentrated in counties around the nation's capital. Six of the richest counties lie on the outskirts of Washington: Fairfax County, Va., Arlington County, Va., Stafford County, Va., Prince William County, Va., Charles County, Md., and Alexandria City, Va.

Not far from D.C. lies another cluster of wealthy counties. Howard County, Md., a suburb of Baltimore, has a standout school system with standardized test scores that consistently beat out the national average, and median household incomes of $101,710. In nearby Montgomery County, where 59 percent of residents over 25 have an advanced degree, households bring in a median $93,999. Historic Calvert County, Md., has profited from its roots as a tobacco-rich farmland as well as its proximity to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and claims a median income of $89,049.

The suburbs of the New York area reap the benefits of the big city's financial industry. Six of the wealthiest counties in the country — Hunterdon County, N.J., Somerset County, N.J., Morris County, N.J., Nassau County, N.Y., Putnam County, N.Y. and Suffolk County, N.Y. — are all part of the New York metropolitan area.

These counties may be knocked a few rungs down the list when the next American Community Survey is released later this year. The new data will reflect incomes for 2009, when the near-collapse of Wall Street stripped many families in the city — and its wealthy outlying suburbs — of their paychecks.

While big-city life may seem glamorous, the rule that it's the boring old 'burbs outside of moneymaking metros where the highest incomes are found also applies far beyond the East Coast. Median incomes are highest in counties outside big cities driven by growth industries such as health care, technology and government.

Counties No. 18 and 19 on the list are two wealth centers in California: Marin County and Santa Clara County. Picturesque and stylish Marin offers scenic vistas, health care industry and technology industry money — Kaiser Permanente and Comcast are among its major employers — and a median income of $88,101. Well-paid, highly skilled tech jobs boost the median income to $87,287 in Santa Clara.

Nashville, Tenn., suburb Williamson County and Atlanta, Ga., suburb Forsyth County are the South's only representatives — but just like the other counties on our list, they have big-city growth industries to thank for their prosperity.

Nashville may be best known for country music, but it's the heavy-hitting health care giants like Hospital Corporation of America headquartered there that account for locals' wealth. Many workers in that booming industry take their paychecks home to Williamson, which has a median income of $88,316.

Beneficiaries of the jobs that companies like UPS, Coca Cola and Delta Airlines created in Atlanta have increasingly taken up residence in Forsyth, fueling a 71 percent population boom between 2000 and 2008 and helping drive the area's median income up to $86,938.

It makes sense that suburban median incomes tend to beat out big cities; workers earning big metropolitan incomes look for top-tier schools and space to settle with their families, thus pulling up median incomes in small bedroom communities. It also helps if those city economies are linked to growth sectors with lots of highly-skilled workers.

Where you choose to settle tends to be an extension of how much you make, rather than the other way around.

© 2012 Forbes.com

Photos: Forbes magazine's world's richest billionaires 2010

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  1. 1. Carlos Slim Helu

    Worth: $53.5 billion
    Industry: Telecom
    Country: Mexico

    The telecom tycoon who pounced on privatization of Mexico's national telephone company in the 1990s becomes world's richest person for first time after coming in third place last year. His net worth rose $18.5 billion in a year. He recently received regulatory approval to merge his fixed-line assets into American Movil, Latin America's biggest mobile phone company. His construction conglomerate, Impulsora del Desarrollo y el Empleo, builds roads and energy infrastructure. The son of a Lebanese immigrant also owns stakes in financial group Inbursa, Bronco Drilling, Independent News & Media, Saks and The New York Times Co. The latter newspaper outfit's stock popped in early March on talk he might buy a controlling stake. He denied the rumor. He recently donated $65 million to fund a research project in genomic medicine with American billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

    More on Helu at Forbes.com. (Mario Guzmán / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 2. Bill Gates

    Worth: $53 billion
    Company: Microsoft
    Country: U.S.

    The software visionary is now the world's second-richest man. His net worth is up $13 billion this year as Microsoft shares rose 50 percent in 12 months, and the value of his investment vehicle Cascade Investment swelled. More than 60 percent of his fortune is held outside Microsoft, with investments including Four Seasons hotels, Televisa and AutoNation. Gates stepped down from day-to-day duties at Microsoft in 2008 to focus on philanthropy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is dedicated to fighting hunger, improving education in America's high schools, developing vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS.

    (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

    More on Gates at Forbes.com. (Ed Wray / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 3. Warren Buffett

    Worth: $47 billion
    Source of income: Investments
    Country: U.S.

    America's favorite investor is up $10 billion in past 12 months on surging Berkshire Hathaway shares. He shrewdly invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs and $3 billion in General Electric amid the 2008 market collapse. He recently acquired railroad giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe for $26 billion. "We've put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. When it's raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble," he has said. Berkshire Hathaway book value was up 19.8 percent to $21.8 billion in 2009. The son of a Nebraska stockbroker met value investor Benjamin Graham while studying economics at Columbia. He took over textile firm Berkshire Hathaway in 1965 and has since used the company as a vehicle to invest in insurance (Geico), food (Dairy Queen), utilities (MidAmerican Energy) and recently green tech (electric-car maker BYD).

    More on Buffett at Forbes.com. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 4. Mukesh Ambani

    Worth: $29 billion
    Industry: Petrochemicals
    Country: India

    His Reliance Industries, already India's most valuable company, recently bid $2 billion for 65 percent stake in troubled Canadian oil sands outfit Value Creations. The firm's $14.5 billion offer to buy bankrupt petrochemicals maker LyondellBasell was rejected. Since September Reliance has sold Treasury shares worth $2 billion to be used for acquisitions. Ambani’s late father, Dhirubhai, founded Reliance and built it into a massive conglomerate. After he died, Mukesh and his brother, Anil, ran the family business together for a brief time. But siblings feuded over control and their mother eventually brokered a split of the assets, with Mukesh getting energy, oil and gas and petrochemicals businesses. He is still at odds with Anil over a gas supply agreement and awaiting a final ruling in the country’s Supreme Court. He owns the cricket team Mumbai Indians.

    More on Ambani at Forbes.com. (Virginia Mayo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 5. Lakshmi Mittal

    Worth: $28.7 billion
    Industry: Steel
    Country: India

    London's richest resident oversees ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel maker. Net profits fell 75 percent in 2009. Mittal took a 12 percent pay cut amid the slump, but an improved outlook has pushed the stock up one-third in the past year. Looking to expand in his native India, he wants to build steel mills in Jharkhad and Orissa but has not received government approval. He started in the family steel business in the 1970s, branching out on his own in 1994. Initially he bought up steel mills on the cheap in Eastern Europe. He earned $1.1 billion for selling his interest in a Kazakh refinery in December. Mittal sits on the boards of Goldman Sachs and EADS. He upped his stake in the struggling British soccer team QPR in February and is funding a 400-foot sculpture to be built in London's Olympic Park in time for 2012 Olympics. He owns a 12-bedroom mansion in London's posh Kensington neighborhood. His daughter-in-law Megha recently bought insolvent German fashion house Escada.

    More on Mittal at Forbes.com. (Jean-christophe Verhaegen / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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