Photographer: Craig Warga/Bloomberg

Shale, Not Stock, Fuels the Wealthiest U.S. County

Set those 1040s aside and look where the real money is.

There are three good guesses for which U.S. county has the the highest adjusted gross incomes (AGI): New York County, otherwise known as Manhattan; Connecticut’s Fairfield County, where those rich Manhattanites land when they want a lawn; and Wyoming’s Teton County, home of Jackson Hole, where the richest of the rich go to play and sometimes stay. 

As you run out of reasons to procrastinate (the deadline to file your taxes is Tuesday!), chew on this: The correct answer is McMullen County, Texas. This rectangle, about 70 miles northwest of Corpus Christi, is home to about 1,000 living people and, in Boot Hill Cemetery, dead ones who saw violent ends and were—as the saying goes—buried “with their boots on.” The average AGI in McMullen County per federal return in 2015 was a whopping $303,717, according to a database search on the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). 1  

On the county level at least, income from shale oil in South Texas overshadowed East Coast stock market wealth, the numbers reveal. “I joke that oil and gas finally made ranching profitable,” said Thomas Tunstall, research director for the Institute for Economic Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “A lot of old Texas families live on large ranches in McMullen County, and the older generation went through tough times prior to five years ago.” Now, he said with mock horror, he’s hearing about Bentleys, rather than F-150s, driving down those gravel roads.

Here’s an income tax data travelogue, courtesy of TRAC’s user-friendly database

  • Connecticut had the highest average wages and salaries for 2015 (hello, hedge funds!). The District of Columbia (hello, lobbyists?) is No. 2. 2
  • Among U.S. counties, New York County had the highest average wages and salaries, at $106,778. At the other end of the spectrum is Catron County in western New Mexico. There, wages and salaries across its 3,500 residents averaged $15,530. The county’s website notes that it’s New Mexico’s largest county by size, at some 7,000 square miles. That’s 2 square miles per person. Meanwhile, the five counties that make up New York City average more than 27,000 people per square mile.
  • On the state level, New York beats Connecticut for highest average interest income per federal taxpayer, at $1,188. Connecticut has $1,165, and good old Wyoming is No. 3, at $1,035. Manhattan was the top county in New York for interest income, with $6,472. 3 (Some very, very rich people are obviously skewing these averages.) 
  • Back in Wyoming’s Teton County, getting by means looking out for moose attacks—and collecting lots of dividends. The county had average dividend income per federal taxpayer of $36,617. That towers above the Wyoming county with the next-highest level of dividends, Sheridan County. There, the average is $3,892. Across the U.S., the average is $1,661. A search for dividend income by state shows Connecticut, Wyoming, and Arkansas (hello, Wal-Mart’s Waltons?) leading the way.
  • The county with the absolute fewest dividends per federal taxpayer, at $11, was North Dakota’s Sioux County, on its southern border. More than 37 percent of residents in the county, the scene of many protests over the controversial Dakota Access energy project, live below the poverty line.

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  1. TRAC recently updated its database of taxpayer returns with the latest available IRS data, which allows users to sort by AGI, wages and salaries, interest income, dividend income, and more. 

  2. Connecticut is also among the states with the highest effective property tax rates. Among counties with populations of at least 100,000 and at least 10,000 single-family homes, Fairfield County was one of nine with average annual property taxes above $10,000, according to Attom Data Solutions.

  3. The figure drops to $2,575 for Westchester County, immediately north of New York City, and to $1,889 for Nassau County, just to the east on Long Island.

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