Urban Income Inequality

photo by sonyblockbuster

The union-affiliated Economic Policy Institute has released a report, Income Inequality in the U.S. by State, Metropolitan Area, and County. The report finds that

The rise in inequality in the United States, which began in the late 1970s, continues in the post–Great Recession era. This rising inequality is not just a story of those in the financial sector in the greater New York City metropolitan area reaping outsized rewards from speculation in financial markets. It affects every state, and extends to the nation’s metro areas and counties, many of which are more unequal than the country as a whole. In fact, the unequal income growth since the late 1970s has pushed the top 1 percent’s share of all income above 24 percent (the 1928 national peak share) in five states, 22 metro areas, and 75 counties. It is a problem when CEOs and financial-sector executives at the commanding heights of the private economy appropriate more than their fair share of the nation’s expanding economic pie. We can fix the problem with policies that return the economy to full employment and return bargaining power to U.S. workers.

The specific findings are very interesting. They include,

  • Overall in the U.S. the top 1 percent took home 20.1 percent of all income in 2013. (4)
  • To be in the top 1 percent nationally, a family needs an income of $389,436. Twelve states, 109 metro areas, and 339 counties have thresholds above that level. (2)
  • Between 2009 and 2013, the top 1 percent captured 85.1 percent of total income growth in the United States. Over this period, the average income of the top 1 percent grew 17.4 percent, about 25 times as much as the average income of the bottom 99 percent, which grew 0.7 percent. (3)
  • Between 1979 and 2013, the top 1 percent’s share of income doubled nationally, increasing from 10 percent to 20.1 percent. (4)
  • The share of income held by the top 1 percent declined in every state but one between 1928 and 1979. (4)
  • From 1979 to 2007 the share of income held by the top 1 percent increased in every state and the District of Columbia. (4)
  • Nine states had gaps wider than the national gap. In the most unequal states—New York, Connecticut, and Wyoming—the top 1 percent earned average incomes more than 40 times those of the bottom 99 percent. (2)
  • For states the highest thresholds are in Connecticut ($659,979), the District of Columbia ($554,719), New Jersey ($547,737), Massachusetts ($539,055), and New York ($517,557). Thresholds above $1 million can be found in four metro areas (Jackson, Wyoming-Idaho; Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut; Summit Park, Utah; and Williston, North Dakota) and 12 counties. (3)

The income threshold of the top 1% for individual counties is also interesting.  For example, New York County (Manhattan) comes in second, at $1,424,582 (following Teton, WY at $2,216,883) and San Francisco County comes in 24th at $894,792. (18, Table 6)

Income inequality is a fact of life for big cities and affects so many aspects of American life — housing, healthcare, education, to name a few important ones. The Economic Policy Institute focuses on union-movement responses to income inequality, but urbanists could also consider how to respond systematically to income inequality in the design of urban systems like those for healthcare, transportation and education. If the federal government is not ready to do anything about income inequality itself, states and local governments can make some progress dealing with its consequences. That is a far better route than acting as if income inequality is just some kind unexpected aspect of modern urban life and then bemoaning its visible manifestations, such as homelessness.



What’s Pushing Down The Homeownership Rate?

USDA New Homeowner

S&P has posted a report, What’s Pushing Down The U.S. Homeownership Rate? It opens,

Seven years after the Great Recession began, a number of key economic factors today have reverted from their short-term extremes. Home prices are rebounding, unemployment is declining, and optimism is rising ­­among economists if not among financial markets­­ that the U.S. economy may finally be strong enough to withstand a rate hike from the Federal Reserve. All these trends point to reversals from the recession’s dismal conditions. Even so, one telling trend for the nation’s economy hasn’t yet reverted to its historic norm: the homeownership rate. The rising proportion of renters to owner ­occupants that followed the housing market turmoil has yet to wane. Compound this with tougher mortgage qualifying requirements over recent years, and it’s not surprising that the homeownership rate, which measures the percentage of housing units that the owner occupies, dropped to a 50­ year low of 63.4% in first­ quarter 2015. However, the further decreases in unemployment and increases in hourly wages that our economists forecast for the next two years may set the stage for an eventual comeback, if only a modest one. (1)

S&P concludes that many have chosen not to become homeowners because of diminished “mortgage availability and income growth.” (8) Like many others, S&P assumes inthat the homeownership rate is unnaturally depressed, having fallen so far below its pre-bubble high of 69.2%. While the current rate is low, S&P does not provide any theory of a “natural” rate of homeownership (cf. natural rate of unemployment). Clearly, the natural rate in today’s economy s higher than something in the 40-50 percent range that existed before the federal government became so involved in housing finance.  And clearly, it is lower than 100% — not everyone should be or wants to be a homeowner. But merely asserting that it is lower than its high is an insufficient basis for identifying the appropriate level today.

I think that the focus should remain on income growth and income inequality. If we address those issues, the homeownership rate should find its own equilibrium. If we push people into homeownership without ensuring that they have stable incomes, we are setting them up for a fall.