In the wake of the Great Recession, rich and poor households are separated by stark geographical divides.
Most of the country’s rich live in cities, while households below the poverty line are concentrated in the countryside and in some inner-city enclaves, according to an analysis by the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis at the University of Redlands. The middle class creates buffer zones between the two.
A map of income distrubution shows a sea of pink in rural America and the South, representing the bottom 25% of earners, while bright orange, representing the 10% of the highest earners, dots the Eastern Seaboard and coast of California.
“The rich and the poor live separate lives,” said Johannes Moenius, director of the Institute for Spatial Analysis. “I was really surprised how much geographical difference there is between higher-income and lower-income groups.”
In about 15% of all ZIP codes, the very richest make up more than 1 in 10 households. In about 20% of all ZIP codes, on the other hand, there’s a significant number of households below the poverty line.
When whittled down to California, the analysis shows that the state’s poor are concentrated in inland areas and in cities in the Central Valley, as well as some bigger cities far from Los Angeles and San Francisco. California’s rich are clustered around Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento.
Such divides between the rich and the poor can “cement regional structures,” Moenius said, and make it more difficult for people to reach a higher income level. If people are not able to move from the region where they live, and that region just consists of the poor, they will be hard-pressed to find economic opportunities, he said.
The analysis also looks at income inequality across the state and nation by measuring the level of income inequality per zip code. Researchers calculated typical income inequality in the U.S., and then measured income inequality in each zip code in the U.S. Certain areas had average amounts of income inequality, while others had lower income inequality, comparable to inequality in Belgium. Some areas had very high income inequality, which the researchers compared to Brazil.
Only about 0.2% of all ZIP codes have a significantly higher than average concentration of rich and poor living in the same ZIP code, researchers found. According to the analysis, the Providence, R.I., ZIP code of 02903, which represents downtown Providence, has the highest income inequality in the nation. The New Orleans ZIP code of 70112, which is downtown, has the second highest, followed by Oklahoma City.
Four Los Angeles ZIP codes are among the 20 of the nation’s most unequal, the analysis found. All of those are in the downtown area: 90014, 90013, 90015 and 90021.
Other U.S. areas with high inequality include Tacoma, Wash. (98402); Syracuse, N.Y. (13202); Oklahoma City (73102); and Pittsburgh (15222). Outside of the cities, though, rural areas in the South have inequality similar to that in Brazil, while rural areas in the Midwest are more similar to Belgium.
“In terms of income inequality, there are geographic areas in the U.S. where the data looks more like a developing country than like the richest country in the world,” Moenius said.