Half of All Americans Live in These Counties

It doesn't take a lot of land to house half of all Americans

By Matt Carmichael on February 18, 2015 at 6:50 am CST
Half the U.S. population lives in these counties

It takes just 147 counties out of 3,143 to house half of the U.S. population. We’re that top-heavy. That’s fewer than 5 percent of the counties in the U.S. In terms of population, counties are remarkably stable. If you look back at the 2000 Census, it also took 147 counties to reach that milestone. Of those 147 counties, all but a handful are the same almost 15 years later.

I bring this up because Livability just added pages about each of these 3,000-plus counties. We want to give you tools to compare the data that drives these counties as well as continue to learn about the cities and towns within them.

OK, but what good are counties anyway? That answer can depend a lot on where you live. In some states, the county takes on needed services like health care and schools. In most, the counties oversee roads and other infrastructure maintenance. In denser counties, the principal city and its suburbs are both contained in one county, often with overlapping governments. Think of the city of Chicago and its surroundings in Cook County, Ill. In areas like that, the city governments take on a much more critical role.

These divisions have their roots all the way back in the founding of our nation and show some of the earliest polarization in the differences between the North and the South.

According to the National Association of Counties:

"[In the South] …on both large plantations and smaller farms, settlers were distributed over a huge geographic area. The English county, as the proper governmental unit to serve a large area, was quickly adopted as the principal form of governance throughout the south.

[In the North] But in the north, conditions were quite different. The settled area in New England was much less spacious, the climate harsher, and people lived nearer each other. In some localities, in fact, local laws required that no resident be more than a half mile, or a mile, from the center of the village. As a consequence, villages, towns and later cities emerged as more important units of government than counties."

Each region adopted the governmental structure that most suited its geography, economic and social realities.

Speaking of political divisions, looking at the above map should give you a sense of just how distorted of a picture the traditional county-level red/blue political maps are. While the red areas dominate the landscape physically, they convey an oversized idea that the entire country leans conservative. Yes, there’s a lot of Republican land mass, but there are a lot of people in those blue counties.

Facts About Counties

Here are some fun facts about counties in the U.S. San Bernardino is the largest in terms of land mass with more than 20,000 square miles contained within its boundaries. To give you a comparison that is fun, but probably not too helpful, that’s more than 16 Rhode Islands. It’s two Massachusettses or just a little smaller than West Virginia. On the other end of the spectrum is Kalawao County with just 12 square miles. Don’t be fooled into thinking that size matters. New York County, NY is the second-smallest county physically but ranks as the 20th most populated. You might know it better as Manhattan.

Most counties are comprised of multiple cities. The weirdest exception to that is New York City. That city is so dense that each of its five boroughs is a separate county unto itself.

According to the Internal Revenue Service, the 147 largest counties had a net migration (people moving in, minus people moving out) of just 39,000 households 2011, the most recent year the data is available. Three Florida counties, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward had the largest increase based on migration. Los Angeles County, Wayne County (Detroit) Mich., and Cook County (Chicago) Ill., had the largest decreased based on migration. However, we’re only talking a few thousand households out of millions total. In many cases, these shifts are just a movement from the central county to nearby, suburban/exurban counties within the same metro area.

The IRS doesn’t just track the people moving out and moving in. It also tracks the money. We’ll look at that a little more next week. Stay tuned, and sign up for blog alerts to get the latest direct to your mailbox.

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