Hardship Index: Pain in the ‘Burbs Means Pain for Democrats in the Fall

BY dchinni  July 28, 2010 at 11:22 AM EDT

Chicago suburbs from the air; Flickr photo via Scorpions and Centaurs Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election was broad-based, but when you look closely, it was mostly about the ‘burbs.

President Obama’s margin of victory in the suburban counties Patchwork Nation calls the Monied ‘Burbs was 12 percent. Four years before, Sen. John Kerry won those 285 counties by less than 2 percentage points.

So if you were, say, a congressional Democrat in 2008 with a lot of those Monied ‘Burb voters in your district, you were feeling pretty good about your prospects in 2010. Not anymore.

Over the course of the last 18 months, the wealthy, educated Monied Burbs have seen a decline in their fortunes. Last year they were seeing less economic hardship than most of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types, but lately they’ve been in the middle of the pack.

And this month’s edition of the Economic Hardship Index shows them to be faring worse than almost every other county type.

In short, the economic pain that has been hitting the country hard for the past two years has come home to the ‘Burbs. And that may mean a hard November ahead for the party in power – and hard times for the economy in general.

Suburban Pain

The Hardship Index measures the most recent economic data available by county including gas prices, unemployment and foreclosures. It then takes those figures and factors them with the basic demographic information Patchwork Nation has about its 12 county types to come up with a Hardship Score.

When we first began measuring the Hardship Index in summer 2008, many of the scores were in the single digits or teens. They are now usually in the 20s or 30s.

But the change in the ‘Burbs is especially noteworthy. Last year their Hardship Score was consistently better than the average. Since May, they have been below the average. In July their Hardship Score is 38.91, well above the average of 34.13 and higher than every community type except the big city Industrial Metropolis counties, which come in at 40.52.

(On the other end of the spectrum, rural and agricultural Tractor Country has a Hardship Score of less than 28 and has seen drops in foreclosures and unemployment, which is down to 5.36 percent.)

“The dramatic difference, it seems to me, is how much worse the suburbs are scoring this year relative to before,” says James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor and creator of the Hardship Index. “California, Nevada and Florida suburban locations continue to be terrible, and were last year too, but the suburbs seem more uniformly distressed this year, like the plague has spread. Now suburban counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Minnesota, Illinois, Connecticut, Washington, Georgia and even recession-proof Maryland and Virginia.”

The numbers in the Monied ‘Burb counties speak for themselves. In July 2009, Fairfax County, Va., had a Hardship Score of 12.42. In this latest Index, its score is above 38. In Montgomery County, Pa., the score went from 19 last year to 37 this year. Lake County, Ill., went from a score of 24 last July to a score of 37 this year.

Unemployment and/or foreclosure readings are up in all those counties over a year ago and over the past few months, which is the window of time the Hardship Index uses to make its measurements.

Sensitive Places

These sour numbers could have an especially heavy impact on the elections this fall because the Monied ‘Burb counties are more likely to swing their vote than other county types and they base their votes more heavily on the state of the economy.

In some ways, those Democrats who saw big things in the Obama Monied ‘Burb vote in 2008 were really just fooling themselves. As Patchwork Nation noted way back then, the crash in the stock market — and the following dip in stock portfolios and 401(k) plan accounts — was the winning issue for candidate Obama in many of the Monied ‘Burbs. We saw it in Los Alamos, N.M., our Monied ‘Burb watch community that fall.

But beyond concerns for the Democrats, there are bigger issues in this July Hardship Index.

The Monied ‘Burbs hold more than 68 million people and they are relatively wealthy. They drive the consumer economy.

Numbers like these explain why the most recent Consumer Confidence Index was down sharply. And if those numbers don’t turn around, it’s hard to imagine that the Index or the larger economy will move strongly forward anytime soon.

Dante Chinni is the director of Patchwork Nation.