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.



Countercyclical Regulation of Housing Finance

Pat McCoy has posted Countercyclical Regulation and Its Challenges to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Following the 2008 financial crisis, countercyclical regulation emerged as one of the most promising breakthroughs in years to halting destructive cycles of booms and busts. This new approach to systemic risk posits that financial regulation should clamp down during economic expansions and ease during economic slumps in order to make financial firms more resilient and to prick asset bubbles before they burst. If countercyclical regulation is to succeed, however, then policymakers must confront the institutional and legal challenges to that success. This Article examines five major challenges to robust countercyclical regulation – data gaps, early response systems, regulatory inertia, industry capture, and arbitrage – and discusses a variety of techniques to defuse those challenges.

Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in the section titled “Sectoral Regulatory Tools.” (34 et seq.) This section gives an overview of countercyclical tools that can be employed in the housing finance sector:  loan-to value limits; debt-to-income limits; and ability-to-repay rules. McCoy ends this section by noting,

The importance of the ability-to-repay rule and the CFPB’s exclusive role in promulgating that rule has another, very different ramification. It is a mistake to ignore the role of market conduct supervisors such as the CFPB in countercyclical regulation. The centrality of consumer financial protection in ensuring sensible loan underwriting standards – particularly for home mortgages – underscores the vital role that market conduct regulators such as the CFPB will play in the federal government’s efforts to prevent future, catastrophic real estate bubbles. (44)

While this seems like an obvious point to me — sensible consumer protection acts as a brake on financial speculation — many, many academics who study financial regulation disagree. If this article gets some of those academics to reconsider their position, it will make a real contribution to the post-crisis financial literature.