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.



Housing Affordability in NYS

The NYS Comptroller issued a report, Housing Affordability in New York State. The report finds that

The percentage of New York State households with housing costs above the affordability threshold, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), rose for both homeowners and renters from 2000 to 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. As of 2012, more than 3 million households in the State paid housing costs that were at or above the affordability threshold of 30 percent of household income. Within that group, more than 1.5 million households paid half or more of their income in housing costs. Statewide, the estimated percentage of rental households with rents above the affordability level increased from 40.5 percent in 2000 to 50.6 percent in 2012. (1, footnote omitted)

The report suggest that “that many New Yorkers are feeling pressure from a combination of stagnant or declining real income and increasing housing costs. A combination of factors including comparatively slow economic growth over time, a rising real estate tax burden, and limited housing supply in many areas of the State contribute to the increasing challenge New Yorkers face in finding affordable housing.” (2)

A pretty consistent theme on this blog is that limits on housing production necessarily limit housing affordability. While this seems obvious to me (perhaps I hang around too many economists?!?), it certainly is not to other people. Many people with whom I discuss affordable housing policy acknowledge that in theory, limits on the supply of housing should effect the price of housing (they all took Econ 101 when they were in college). But they look around New York City, see new high rises going up while housing prices are going up at the same time. They then doubt that increasing the supply of housing will reduce the cost of housing. All I can say is who are you going to believe — your Econ 101 teacher or your own lyin’ eyes?

But of course that is not a compelling argument. So I tell my interlocutors that it is necessary to take into account the fact that NY is seeing a dramatic increase in demand. This demand comes from the increasing resident population as well as the inflow of the ultra rich who want a (fifth?) part-time home in NYC as well as a safe place to park some capital. This high demand masks a problem that NY has faced for decades — too little new housing construction to support the existing residents, let alone all of the new residents.

The de Blasio Administration has acknowledged the need for increased housing construction as part of its program to increase housing affordability in the five NYC counties. The Comptroller’s report acknowledges that a similar dynamic is occurring throughout New York State. Perhaps Governor Cuomo will identify ways in which the State government can take a leading role in encouraging housing construction in all 62 of New York State’s counties.