Flickr/David

A new analysis finds that the largest cities in the U.S. are also some of its most unequal, now more than ever.

Economic inequality across America’s large, coastal cities continues to deepen, according to a new study released this week by the Brookings Institution. The study, by Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, calculates inequality based on what they dub the “95-20 ratio.” This method compares the income of the top 5 percent to the bottom 20 percent of households across America’s 50 largest cities.

Most studies of urban inequality look at inequality in terms of metro areas, which include center cities and their suburbs. While useful, this approach can mask significant differences between cities and suburbs, as Ben Adler recently pointed out over at Grist. The Brookings study tracks the gap between the haves and have-nots within just those primary cities, using the most recently available data from the U.S. Census Bureau covering 2012-2013.

The chart below, from the study, shows the most and least unequal cities based on the 95-20 ratio. Atlanta ranks as the nation’s most unequal: The incomes among the top 5 percent there are nearly 20 times what the bottom 20 percent makes. San Francisco is next, followed by Boston, Miami, and Washington, D.C.  Rounding out the top 10 are New York, Dallas, Chicago, L.A., and Minneapolis. (It's interesting to note that Minneapolis tends to rank as far less unequal on other measures.)

The majority of these highly unequal cities are concentrated on the coasts. Furthermore, four of the ten most unequal cities also number among America’s ten largest: New York (the most populous city in the country and the sixth most unequal), Dallas (ninth largest, seventh most unequal), Chicago (third largest, eighth most unequal) and L.A. (second largest, ninth most unequal). This is in line with several recent economics studies that find inequality increases alongside the size of cities.

Conversely, the least unequal cities are considerably smaller and mostly concentrated off the coasts: Virginia Beach, Colorado Springs, Mesa, Arizona; Oklahoma City, Arlington, Texas; Nashville, Las Vegas, Raleigh, Columbus and Albuquerque.

The rich got even richer between 2012 and 2013 in 12 of the nation’s 50 largest cities, according to the analysis. The cities where the top 5 percent saw the biggest gains are a mixed bunch, including Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Louisville, as well as Seattle, San Jose, New York, and L.A., as the table below shows. Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the only large American city where the income of the top 5 percent actually declined between 2012 and 2013.

On the flip side, the incomes of the bottom 20 percent increased in 11 of the 50 largest cities. Despite its high level of overall inequality, the bottom 20 percent of earners in San Francisco saw their incomes grow considerably. There are two cities—Jacksonville and Houston, both highlighted in bold on the table above—that saw significant gains in the incomes of both the top 5 and bottom 20 percent.

The chart above shows just how comparatively rich the top 5 percent are in America’s 50 largest cities. The incomes of the top 5 percent in San Francisco are almost literally off the chart. But the rich are also pretty darn rich in San Jose, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Seattle, New York, Boston, and L.A.

Income inequality is high across the country. But it‘s even worse in our largest and most advanced cities. I’ve said it before: In our increasingly dense and clustered world, concentrated advantage sits side by side with increasingly concentrated disadvantage.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Tourists walk along the High Line in Manhattan, New York City
    Life

    The Beauty Premium: How Urban Beauty Affects Cities’ Economic Growth

    A study finds that the more beautiful a city is, the more successful it is at attracting jobs and new residents, including highly educated and affluent ones.

  2. Design

    How I. M. Pei Shaped the Modern City

    The architect, who died yesterday at the age of 102, designed iconic modern buildings on prominent sites around the world. Here are some that delight and confound CityLab.

  3. Solutions

    ‘Fairbnb’ Wants to Be the Unproblematic Alternative to Airbnb

    The vacation rental industry is mired in claims that it harms neighborhoods and housing markets. Can a nonprofit co-op make the tourist trend a community asset?

  4. Still from 'Game of Thrones' showing three characters trudging through a burning city.
    Design

    King’s Landing Was Always a Miserable Dump

    Game of Thrones’ destruction of the capital of the Seven Kingdoms revealed a city of mean living conditions and rampant inequality.

  5. An artist's rendering of a space colony, with farms, a university campus, an elevated train track, and skyscrapers in the background.
    Design

    Jeff Bezos Dreams of a 1970s Future

    If the sci-fi space cities of Bezos’s Blue Origin look familiar, it’s because they’re derived from the work of his college professor, the late physicist Gerard O’Neill.