Why Democrats Are Focused on Inequality: Liberal Metros Face the Worst of It

U.S. metro areas that voted for Obama tend to have higher levels of inequality and segregation.

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Marta Nunez wears a Barack Obama dress as she watches the 2012 election returns in Times Square. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri )

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rose to power last year with his “tale of two cities” narrative. And in cities like Boston and Pittsburgh, we’ve seen a mini-burst in the number of liberal mayors concerned with progressive causes like income inequality. On a national level, a Politico analysis back in January declared the 2014 Democrats the party of income inequality.

Could it be that inequality is greater in more liberal-leaning cities? A growing body of research, including my own, finds that inequality is greater in larger, denser, more knowledge-based U.S. cities and metro areas. Michael Zuckerman, writing for The Atlantic earlier this spring, found a close association between inequality and liberal congressional districts. As his chart shows, nearly all of the 25 districts with the highest levels of income inequality were represented by Democrats.

Michael Zuckerman

Thinking more broadly, I wanted to take a closer statistical look at the relationship between inequality and the liberal attitudes of cites and metro areas.

With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, we examined the associations between the share of votes that went for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and several key measures of inequality and segregation across U.S. metros. (As usual, I note that correlation does not equal causation and points simply to associations between variables).

Generally speaking, our results suggest that more liberal metros tend to be more unequal and more segregated.

Inequality and Democratic Voters

Liberal metros are more unequal, according to Mellander’s analysis. She found a positive correlation between wage inequality and the share of votes for Obama (.29), and a negative one between it and the share of votes for Romney ( -.29). It’s worth pointing out that relationship between liberalness (based on the metro share of Obama votes) and income inequality based on the Gini coefficient is considerably weaker (.14). This may reflect the higher wages and higher levels of transfers to low-income groups in bigger metros, while poverty has tended to be deeper and more entrenched in smaller Southern metros that lean red. My own research has shown that poverty and race play a considerable role in income inequality across metros. Wage inequality focuses more specifically on the economic divide between skilled knowledge workers and their less skilled service and blue-collar counterparts.

Economic Segregation and Democratic Voters

Liberal metros are even more highly segregated. Mellander found a stronger positive association between our overall index of economic segregation (a combined metric that is based on income, education and occupational class) and the share of metro voters who went for Obama (.32), and a stronger negative association with Romney’s share of metro voter (-.31).   

This link between segregation levels and liberal political leanings is an important one. For all of our recent discussion of income inequality, recent studies have found that the geographic segregation of groups within metros may pose an even bigger impediment to upward mobility than inequality itself. 

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There are a number of possible explanations and implications for this link between liberalism and inequality.

Most basically, larger cities tend to be both more unequal and more liberal. This inequality stems from the combined effects of several related factors, including density, the clustering of economic assets, the increasing returns on investment to skills, and the legacy of poverty and concentrated disadvantage in large urban centers.

As my CityLab colleagues and I have noted before, there is a strong association between density and liberal politics. In election maps broken down by county, nearly every big metropolitan center is painted blue, with red concentrated in the outer suburban rings surrounding these centers and in the rural parts of the country.

As more and more educated and affluent Americans move back into these blue cities, they are only becoming more unequal, and these trends may yet accelerate further. Joshua Green and Eric Chemi noted earlier this spring in Bloomberg Businessweek that nearly all of these “most unequal” districts in America have a similar demographic profile: they lie “in an urban center dominated by two groups of people living in close proximity to each other: highly educated, highly paid whites and poor blacks and Latinos. These groups are essentially the Democratic Party’s base.”

Zuckerman’s analysis puts it even more plainly. He writes, “The fact that Democrats represent districts that are (on average) more unequal than Republican districts suggests that the parties may have such divergent views on income inequality in part because their members (and constituents) have divergent experiences of income inequality.” This was true on the level of congressional districts, and it remains clear for metropolitan-level voting patterns as well.

About the Author

  • Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of CityLab.com and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More
    Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here