Some American cities have rates similar to the world's poorest nations.

Income inequality in America has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age. As Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, noted in June, “America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries — and its gap with the rest has been widening.”

This already-high national level of inequality is even worse in certain American cities and metro regions. This is not surprising, given the large-scale demographic and economic sorting of Americans by education and skill over the past couple of decades. But it’s still shocking to realize that some American cities and metros face levels of inequality comparable to those in the poorest nations of Africa and other less-developed parts of the world.

The Martin Prosperity Institute's Zara Matheson mapped data for 362 metros (based on an analysis by the institute's Charlotta Mellander). The team used country-level data from the CIA's World Factbook and metro-level data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2008-2010 American Community Survey. They relied upon the Gini coefficient as their measurement for inequality, which is a numerical rating on a scale from .00 (perfectly equal) to 1.00 (most unequal).

Map by MPI's Zara Matheson

The Gini coefficient for the United States as a whole is .450, about the same as Iran and the Philippines. For comparison’s sake, the Gini coefficient for Sweden, the world’s most-equal country, is .230. Denmark’s is .248, Germany’s is .270 and Canada’s is .321. The most unequal countries in the world have Gini coefficients between .60 to roughly .70. Though none of America’s metros score that high, the picture is still not a pretty one. Most large metros (with over one million people) have inequality levels that are equal to or above the U.S. average.

  • The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk (.537) metro — which includes not just the gritty factory town that gives it its name, but stately Westport and über-affluent Greenwich — shares a Gini ranking with Thailand (.536). “The richest Thais earn 14.7 times more than the poorest,” said Gwi-Yeop Son, an United Nations Development Programme representative, a few years ago. “The bottom 60 percent of the population's share of the income is only 25 percent.”
  • The disparity between New York’s (.504) richest and poorest is comparable to what you’d find in Swaziland (.504), a place not generally noted for its economic dynamism or quality of life (its average life expectancy is the lowest in the world).
  • Los Angeles’s inequality (.485) is the equivalent of the Dominican Republic (.484).
  • Chicago (.468) is like El Salvador (.469).
  • Detroit (.457) matches up with the Philippines (.458).
  • San Francisco's (.475) inequality is similar to Madagascar's (.475).
  • Dallas (.463) is like Malaysia (.462).
  • Inequality in Denver (.455) is comparable to Jamaica’s (.455).
  • Seattle’s Gini (.439) is similar to Nigeria (.437).

On the flip side, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis St. Paul (.436), Greater Washington, D.C. (.435), Las Vegas (.429), Honolulu (.421), Salt Lake City (.417), and several others stand out as having among the lowest levels of inequality, though these levels are in line with China (.415) and Russia (.422).

Just five U.S. metros have inequality levels below .4 — Fairbanks, Alaska (.399); Monroe, Michigan (.398); Appleton (.395) and Sheboygan (.393), Wisconsin; and Ogden-Clearfield, Utah (.389) — values which are still greater than the level of inequality found in India (.368).

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A New Plan to Correct a Historic Mistake in Pittsburgh

    A Bjarke Ingels Group-led plan from 2015 has given way to a more “practical” design for the Lower Hill District. Concerns over true affordable housing remain.

  2. Electricians install solar panels on a roof for Arizona Public Service company in Goodyear, Arizona.
    Environment

    A Bottom-Line Case for the Green New Deal: The Jobs Pay More

    A Brookings report finds that jobs in the clean energy, efficiency, and environmental sectors offer higher salaries than the U.S. average.

  3. A photo of a closed street in St. Louis
    Equity

    What’s Behind the Blocked Streets of St. Louis?

    Thanks to an '80s mania for traffic calming, the St. Louis grid is broken by hundreds of car barriers and cul-de-sacs. Critics say it’s time to get rid of them.

  4. A photo of shoppers on University Avenue in East Palo Alto, California, which is flanked by two technology campuses.
    Equity

    An Island of Silicon Valley Affordability Says Yes to More Housing

    East Palo Alto is surrounded by tech riches, but that hasn’t necessarily helped longtime residents, who welcome a state law mandating zoning reform

  5. A crowded room of residents attend a local public forum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
    Life

    Are Local Politics As Polarized As National? Depends on the Issue.

    Republican or Democrat, even if we battle over national concerns, research finds that in local politics, it seems we can all just get along—most of the time.