More than 50 million Americans live in economically distressed communities, according to a startling new report from the nonprofit Economic Innovation Group. The report, which examines economic distress across tens of thousands of ZIP codes, finds one-fifth them to be in economic distress. In the average distressed ZIP code, around 25 percent of adults lack a high school diploma, and a whopping 55 percent are not working.
The map below paints a stark picture of neighborhood distress and spatial inequality across the United States. Dark red shows the most distressed neighborhoods, light red reflects distressed places, relatively prosperous communities are in lighter green, and the most prosperous communities are in dark green. In the period of recovery following the Great Recession, the authors find, jobs in the median U.S. ZIP code grew at less than half the national rate. While some communities are currently enjoying the fruits of the recovery, others have sunk further into poverty. According to the authors, this pattern of distress vs. prosperity not only “diverges between cities and states but even more starkly within cities at the neighborhood level.”
The report’s findings are based on a new Distressed Community Index, which maps community well-being in the U.S. down to the neighborhood level. It covers over 26,000 ZIP codes, 3,000 counties, and nearly 800 cities based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Areas are scored based on an equal weighting of seven variables, including poverty rates, housing vacancy, unemployment, and changes in the number of local businesses.
Very few large U.S. cities have both high levels of prosperity and low levels of spatial inequality—meaning that advantage is generally concentrated in a select few areas. Just nine out of the nation’s 100 largest cities enjoy what might be termed inclusive prosperity, where the gains from economic growth are distributed broadly among residents. These are mainly smaller, more affluent places such Arlington, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach, Virginia; Chandler, Gilbert, and Scottsdale, Arizona; Irvine, California; Madison, Wisconsin; and Plano, Texas.
The table below shows the ten U.S. cities with the largest number of people living in distressed ZIP codes. Given its large population size, it’s no surprise that New York takes first place with over 1.3 million residents living in distressed ZIP codes, which is roughly 16 percent of its population. Chicago comes in second with over a million residents in distressed ZIP codes (39 percent of its population), followed by Houston with over 700,000 (33 percent of its population). The rest of the top ten consists of large metros like Detroit, Philadelphia, and L.A.
The EIG study makes the important point that spatial inequality is different from income inequality in the U.S. Income inequality is not only “a function of the type of jobs the economy generates,” according to the report, but also of “a much broader array of variables” (e.g. age, consumption, or population growth). Although income inequality is highest in large, dense cities like New York, L.A., and San Francisco, spatial inequality is highest among more sprawling southern cities like Charlotte and San Antonio. With the exception of cities like Chicago and Houston, the report finds that “many of the places that appear the most equitable in terms of income in fact hide stark divides in community-level well-being.”
The table below identifies the top 10 most distressed cities in the nation. As one might expect, the report again finds that “struggling Rust Belt cities in the Northeast and Midwest register the highest levels of economic distress.” Camden, New Jersey, takes first place with a distress score of 100, followed closely by Cleveland, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; and Youngstown, Ohio. Hartford, Utica, and Harlingen, Texas, secure the next three spots, while cities like Albany, Flint, and Detroit round out the top ten. All 10 of these cities have a distress score above 98.
The next table shows the top 20 most unequal counties in the U.S. This list mostly consists of Southern counties that include cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston, and Fort Worth, as well as those in Rustbelt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Columbus, Ohio.
Ultimately, this important report goes to show that the geography of inequality across the U.S., even in the midst of recovery, is extremely spiky and characterized by areas of concentrated advantage and disadvantage. While some communities have been able to recover nicely from the Great Recession, others are in fact worse off than before. When all is said and done, too many Americans live in distressed neighborhoods and too few cities combine growth with inclusive prosperity.