Geographic Economic Inequality Is Growing In The U.s.

The economic gap between have and have-not places continues to widen.

It’s not just economic inequality—the gap between the rich and the poor—that is growing ever wider. Geographic inequality, the divide between rich and poor places, is too.

America’s growing geographic or spatial inequality is documented in great detail in recent studies from the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) and The Hamilton Project of Brookings Institution.

The EIG report, released earlier this week, uses data on income, jobs, business dynamism, educational attainment, unemployment, vacant housing, and poverty, to track the performance of thousands of zip codes across America over two periods, 2007 to 2011 (defined by the study as the recession) and 2012 to 2016 (recovery). They combine these key measures into a Distressed Communities Index (DCI).

Their analysis confirms the decline of America’s once-sturdy middle-class neighborhoods, and the splitting of the nation into areas of concentrated advantage, juxtaposed with areas of concentrated disadvantage.

Fewer than 40 percent of Americans, 120 million or so, live in middle-class neighborhoods which the study’s authors classify as “comfortable” and “mid-tier.” Another third, 106 million people, live in “at-risk” or “distressed” communities. An advantaged quarter or so of Americans, 86 million, live in affluent, “prosperous” neighborhoods. Furthermore, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged neighborhoods has increased in the past decade or so.

America’s rising neighborhood inequality is etched into its broader economic geography. The greatest concentrations of affluent neighborhoods were found in the North and East, especially around bicoastal superstar cities, with the South and East being home to the largest concentrations of distressed communities. Utah had the largest percentage of its population living in a prosperous neighborhood—about half—while California saw the greatest upward shift, with the number of residents in prosperous neighborhoods growing by more than three million.

Meanwhile, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, and West Virginia, had the largest concentrations of distressed neighborhoods, with the latter three seeing the greatest rise in the share of their populations living in distressed communities.

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