Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Looking for neighborhood-level maps of our second Gilded Age? This is the place.
How do race and inequality intersect with space? American mapmakers have been trying to answer this question since at least 1895, when a group of reform-minded Chicago women published the Hull-House Maps and Papers. At the height of the Gilded Age, inequality was skyrocketing. Housing and labor conditions among droves of new immigrants were dire.
Putting their faith in data as catalyst for progress, the Chicago reformers meticulously surveyed the ethnicities and wages of industrial workers living in a tenement neighborhood on the Near West Side, and then plotted their findings in vivid color on a set of blank property maps. The result was a groundbreaking visual demonstration of poverty as a product of a person’s spatial context, rather than some damning individual quality—a belief that was commonly held then (as it is now).
Flash-forward 120-plus years, and we’re living in an era some call a second Gilded Age. In fact, income inequality is even worse now than it was then. Mapmakers are still figuring out the best ways to plot disparities across all sorts of measures—jobs and school quality, environmental health, and transportation access, for example—to advocate for policy change. The National Equity Atlas, developed by PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE), might be the best and most comprehensive graphic call for economic equality available today.
Launched in 2014, the project provides data on “demographic change, racial inclusion, and the economic benefits of equity for the 100 largest cities, 150 largest regions, all 50 states, and the United States,” the Atlas states. This week, it was updated to include neighborhood-level maps charting indicators of educational and job opportunity equality: race/ethnicity, people of color, unemployment, and “disconnected youth” (16-to-19-year-olds who are neither working nor in school). With so-called minority groups set to constitute the majority of the U.S. population by 2044, “their social and economic well-being will determine the country's success and prosperity,” the Atlas states.
You can start from a macro view of the United States to see the national contours of these measures, and click through different options so see how they shift on different spatial levels. For example, here is where America’s disconnected youth reside, county by county (check out where the data comes from, here):
You can adjust a toggle on the Atlas to see how this compares to areas populated heavily by non-white residents. It’s striking to see how race and disenfranchisement among youth align. When you set for 50 percent “communities of color,” a number of hard-hit Rust Belt counties seem to disappear, but the rapidly growing, heavily minority communities in the Sun Belt still bubble up:
A similar pattern holds for unemployment rates:
Cranking up the toggle on people of color reveals that many hotspots for joblessness are consistent with higher shares of minorities.
Drilling down to the neighborhood level, these parallels are even more obvious. Just as it did in the first Gilded Age, Chicago consistently ranks as one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., and that’s apparent by not only racial measures but by shares of young people with limited chances at financial success. Take Chicago’s overall disconnected youth, for example:
Here we see how disconnected youth line up with communities where people of color make up at least half the population. Except for a few areas on the north side of the city, the map barely shifts:
You can also more closely examine how these maps transform when you’re looking at one race or ethnicity in particular. Here’s how Chicago unemployment patterns look citywide:
And here is how they look for areas with relatively high percentage of Latinos, who’ve historically represented huge shares of Chicago’s population growth:
You can break this down to statistical charts and discover that residents of Guatemalan descent are even more likely to face unemployment.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Although only a few measures are available to explore at the city level at this point, there is plenty to dig into in other spatial frames, including measures of pollution exposure, demographic change, immigrants’ share of population growth, car access, and homeownership.
What might be done with these maps? The hope is that equity advocates and elected officials will use the data to guide policy, improve regulations, and open up economic and educational opportunity. “Shifting from inequitable to just growth requires facts to guide policies,” Manuel Pastor, the director of PERE, has stated. So far, labor advocates in California have used Atlas data to organize communities around raising the state minimum wage. Leaders in Fairfax County, Virginia, where the population of people of color surged 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, partnered with the team behind the Atlas in support the county’s commitment to racial equity “as a driver of regional economic growth and vitality.” New York City transportation justice groups used data similar to what is in the Atlas to lobby transit agencies to consider certain bus routes more carefully,* while Chicago youth also used similar statistics in support of a landmark bill addressing racially biased disciplinary policies in public schools.
You also don’t need to be pushing for change to appreciate the power of these maps. Get lost exploring this incredible resource here.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this post suggested that New York City transportation advocates used data from the Atlas itself.