Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Three types of visualizations show the stark economic disparities in U.S. cities.
In Philly’s Center City live its richest residents—those who can pay the premium for that walkable, amenity-rich, green neighborhood. But just across the river, blocks away from the lush, expanding campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, the visual landscape of the city changes: Pawn shops, fast food eateries, boarded-up store fronts, and dilapidated houses. Only a few areas in West Philadelphia have become more prosperous (and whiter). The rest continue to suffer concentrated poverty and decline.
This is not just a Philadelphia story. To visualize the landscape of economic inequality in U.S. cities, the mapping whizzes at ESRI have created a captivating story map with multiple layers. It presents America’s stark income disparities—and in the few places where it exists, income diversity.
Let’s zoom in further on Philadelphia to understand ESRI’s three metrics. The first type of map divides census tracts into four differently colored categories based on the income brackets of the “predominant”—or most most numerous—household type.
The clusters of orange dots show the tracts where the most common household type makes below $25,000; the pink ones show where households in the $25,000 to $50,000 range comprise the largest group; the purple: between $50,000 and $100,000; and the blue ones are where rich households that earn over $100,000 live. Note: The larger the dot, the more populous the tract it is marking; and the brighter it is, the higher the concentration of the “predominant” income group.
In Philly, you can see that blue spots burn bright in the Center City area, in particular.
The second measure gives a sense of how the share of groups at the lower and higher end of the income spectrum compare with the national average. So, the orange clusters on the map below show the tracts where the share of households making below $25,000 is higher than the national share of 22.3 percent. The blue ones show where the share of households making over $100,000 a year is higher than the overall share of 24.6 percent. The brighter the dots, the higher the gap between the Census tract’s share and the nation’s. Put another way, this map shows the extremes of poverty or wealth. West and North Philadelphia, the map below shows, have deep pockets of red:
The third type of map, inspired by a USA Today diversity index, examines the likelihood that households belong to different income brackets in a given census tract. The green ones are more diverse; here, you’re more likely to run into people from different economic backgrounds. The pink ones are less so; most households in these tracts fall into a single income bracket, whether it be high, low, or moderate. While Center City and some areas in West Philly may have high concentrations of rich and poor folks, respectively, they also tend to have a little bit more income diversity than areas in the North.
ESRI has a handful of other cities on the tab that all have their own distinct patterns. Below is the first type of map showing Los Angeles, which is majority residents of color, but still starkly divided by income. Lower-income households that make below $25,000 (in orange) are clumped together in areas including downtown and the San Fernando and San Bernardino Valleys.
In Chicago, the West and South sides contain households that have higher concentrations of poor households (in orange) compared to the national average.
And then there’s Detroit, mapped below based on the concentration of income brackets. Even though it has been recovering from its economic woes, and is poised to become a crucial regional player, the city has yet to distribute its gains to the most vulnerable residents. A quarter of the city’s residents still live in poverty—usually in the inner city area which, by and large, has very few households of other economic profiles.
At the end of the day, the way economic inequality manifests geographically can be measured in a number of ways—all of which have their pluses and minuses. But pinpointing concentrations of rich and the poor is a crucially important sociological exercise. Rich enclaves tend to “pool their resources for the exclusive benefit of themselves,” writes political economist Robert Reich in the New York Times:
The renewed emphasis on "community" in American life has justified and legitimized these economic enclaves. If generosity and solidarity end at the border of similarly valued properties, then the most fortunate can be virtuous citizens at little cost. Since most people in one neighborhood or town are equally well off, there is no cause for a guilty conscience. If inhabitants of another area are poorer, let them look to one another. Why should we pay for their schools?
Put simply: As the rich cluster together, the poor get poorer, because the effects of living in poor neighborhoods are passed down from one generation to the next. That’s why dismantling economic silos within a city can boost its total well-being and economic health.