America’s Big Cities Are Inequality Hot Spots

Study shows income inequality in big cities is significantly higher than in the country as a whole

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Incoming inequality in the United States is greatest in the country’s big cities, according to a new study of what’s increasingly become a hot-button issue in local and national politics.

The big city with the highest level of income inequality in the U.S.—measured by the distance between the incomes of the wealthiest five percent and the poorest 20 percent—is Atlanta, Ga., according to the Brookings Institution study. The richest five percent earn more than $280,000 in Atlanta, while the poorest 20 percent make less than $15,000. San Francisco is next on the incoming inequality list, followed by Miami, Boston and Washington, D.C.

In some cities, like San Francisco, growing income inequality is due primarily to skyrocketing incomes for the wealthiest residents. But in most places, the biggest changes have happened on the other end of the spectrum, as incomes at the bottom have stagnated as the recession and housing crisis gutted opportunities for the poorest Americans. Such is the case in Miami, which scores highly in the inequality index not because of the pockets of very wealthy residents that remain in the city, but because its poor residents have exceptionally low incomes, the third-lowest among America’s 50 largest cities, at $10,000.

While income inequality has soared in some cities since the Great Recession, that trend hasn’t been uniform for all cities, the study notes—in other words, income inequality in America’s cities is not solely a product of the Great Recession. And contrary to the image conjured by San Francisco, on the whole tech hubs have actually done slightly better than other cities at holding back the tide of growing income inequality across the country. As the Progressive Policy Institute notes, income inequality actually increased at a slower rate in tech hubs than in non-tech hubs in Brookings study, and two tech hubs (Denver and Seattle) actually saw a decrease in income in equality in recent years compared to just one non-tech hub (El Paso).

The five cities with the lowest level of income inequality are Colorado Springs; Wichita, Kan.; Las Vegas; Mesa, Ariz.; Arlington, Texas; and Virginia Beach.