EDITORIAL: How wealthy are we?

IT’S BEEN A WHILE since Columbia County towns regularly appeared on the list of the Capital Region’s Wealthiest Zip Codes in the Capital Region published by the Albany Business Review. This year’s list of Zip codes uses U.S. Census data to rank the Postal Service zones by Median Household Income. The wealthiest community turns out to be West Sand Lake, a Zip code in Rensselaer County, our neighbor to the north. Its median household income is $117,888. Or at least it was that wealthy in 2020.

You might remember 2020 for the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S. You might also recall the efforts by the Trump administration to manipulate population data by seeking to shut down the national headcount earlier than authorized. But we have to assume that everybody is using the same data when evaluating the wealth in the 11 counties used in the Wealthiest Zip Codes list.

The main list ranks 25 Zip codes… except for a separate list in a separate column headlined “Closer Look,” which has a separate list of “Just Missed” Zips. Included on that list is the Kinderhook Zip code 12106, with a median household income of $83,026. It comes in as number #4 of the 10 Just-Missed communities or, if you prefer, Kinderhook ranks #29 overall. But wait: the Ghent Zip Code, 12075, weighs in at number 6 on the Just-Missed community, or #31st overall. It makes me wonder what this approach to measuring wealth tells us.

Start with ZIP codes. They were designed to make the mail travel smoothly and they’ve worked remarkably well. But they don’t necessarily follow natural boundaries or municipal divisions. That would be hard to do in a country as large and complex as ours. Earlier versions of the wealthiest Zips must have been calculated in a different manner. In some cases the lists suggested the presence of rich homeowners in what appeared to be low income communities because of large estates that skewed the median household income radically higher.

In more recent years, those quirks appear to have been worked out of the Wealthiest Zip list. We’re awash in credible data. But we don’t yet know whether Columbia County is growing poorer relative to our neighbors. Or put another way, do our neighbors know something we don’t?

I’m not suggesting everybody in this county could, or wants to, become rich. But reporter Lorna Cherot Littleway talked to a lot of people for last week’sstory on employment opportunities (“Hot county job market freezes out some,” August 18, Pg 1) and found people who acknowledged that they can’t make a living on the wages being offered.

The wage gap between what a person earns and what it costs to live here doesn’t show any signs of shrinking. And the biggest expense for most people with low wage jobs, often the biggest obstacle is the high cost of adequate housing. Add transportation to the list and that leaves little left to pay for luxuries like… food?

There’s no single approach that will resolve all the labor shortages facing this county, especially with our high proportion of people 65 and older. But we don’t have the option of ignoring them, either.

Instead of dreaming about income we’ll never have, we need to look beyond the Wealthiest Zip codes and create a standard for the best quality of life for the most people as a more accurate measure of success and security.

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