Earlier this month, a map saying that $100 will buy you less in DC than any other state made the online rounds. But while it’s true $100 will buy you less in DC, it’s misleading to leave it at that because DC’s higher incomes mean it’s easier to make $100 here than in many other places.


Image from the Tax Foundation.



The above map, which came from the Tax Foundation’s Alan Cole uses the relative value of $100 across states to highlight how prices of the same goods vary. “The same amount of cash can buy you comparatively more in a low-price state than in a high-price state,” writes Cole.

For instance, in Mississippi, the state with the lowest prices, you could spend $100 to buy goods that would on average cost $115.34 in the US. Conversely, DC has the lowest relative value of $100: If you spend $100 in DC you would receive goods that on average cost $84.67.

But using that to conclude that DC is the most expensive place in the country is a bit disingenuous. States are a mix of urban, surburban and rural. DC is wholly urban, and urban areas tend to be more expensive. A more accurate view would compare DC to other cities.

When the Tax Foundation did just that a week later, with the map below, it seemed like a step in the right direction. By comparing the relative value of $100 across metro areas, the DC region turns out to look like the seventh-most expensive:


Image from the Tax Foundation.


But wait! There’s an even bigger underlying issue with this analysis: it doesn’t take income into account at all. In other words, while $100 might buy you a different amount of goods in one place versus another, what about the fact that you can make $100 a lot faster in some places than others?

The map below shows the real personal income for each metro area. This measure adjusts income to account for regional price variations and inflation. Among the 428 metro and non-metro areas, DC has the 23rd highest real personal income. So while the DC region has high prices, it also has high incomes. To some extent, the two balance each other out.


Image by the author.


Cross-posted at DataLensDC.

Kate Rabinowitz is the creator of datalensdc.com, a website dedicated to visualizing the District through data. She resides in a Capitol Hill alley home and enjoys data mining, board games, and wandering city streets.