American median income, poverty rates, and inequality by county

Check out these maps of American inequality and income using the latest American Community Survey data.

The below five maps were created by Calvin Metcalf, Kyle Box and Laura Evans using the latest five-year American Community Survey estimates provided by the Census Bureau for last weekend’s National Day of Civic Hacking (we’re geeking out on these projects this week).

Working from Boston, the group has so far mapped nearly a dozen demographic points from the data, including a few they calculated on their own (be sure to check out the very bizarre map of America’s gender ratios by county). These five maps, however, jumped out at us for how they each illustrate deep and lingering differences between the American North and South, as seen through several different data points. Of course, the patterns aren’t perfect, and exceptions abound; major cities in the North turn out to be hotspots of inequality on par with much of the Deep South…

Median income (in annual dollars)

Population living below the poverty line (by percent)

Income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient, the closer to zero the better)

There do seem to be seem some regional differences. But, these three maps raise other questions:

1. This may be a good place for population weighted maps. While counties are one unit of geographic measure, they can obscure finer-grained data. For example, the map of median income shows higher incomes in urban areas but this glosses over poor urban and suburban neighborhoods. Plus, many of the counties in the South, Great Plains, and Mountain West have relatively fewer people.

2. The income map shows one story – generally higher incomes in urban areas – and the inequality, measured by the Gini coefficient, shows that these same urban areas have high levels of inequality. This may be an issue with the county measure but it also highlights that while cities are economic engines, they are also homes to pronounced inequality.

The current state of Zipcar

The Infrastructurist provides a quick overview of the current state of Zipcar. Some of the things you should know:

Zipcar went public last week, and how. On its first day of trading, the company raised $174.3 million and finished up 56 percent. All told, Zipcar sold 9.7 million shares of stock at $18 a pop and earned itself a market value of $1.21 billion, according to Bloomberg…

The 11-year-old company currently operates in 14 cities — 12 in the United States, plus Vancouver and London — and 230 college campuses. Its fleet stands at around 8,000 cars, and its membership at 560,000.

Robin Chase, the company’s founder, has been known to say: “Infrastructure is destiny.” The business world is more concerned with whether profits are destiny. So far, for Zipcar, they have not been. Last year the company generated about $186 million in revenue but still posted a net loss of roughly $14 million…

Zipcar’s biggest problem, writes the Wall Street Journal, may be growing competition from traditional car rental companies…

In the end Zipcar’s success may hinge on how transportation evolves in the near future.

This overview is pitched as a look at whether Zipcar is “a good investment.” This would be the business angle: the company has not turned a profit even as it seems like investors are at least somewhat confident that they could make some money down the road.

But there are plenty of other questions to ask (the answers to these questions would have an impact on the business side but are more interesting to me): is this company on to something regarding infrastructure and the use of cars? In recent months, there is some data to suggest Americans want to live in more walkable environments (which could presumably lead to less interest in owning a vehicle). Is this model sustainable even in these cities, let alone less dense cities? It would be interesting to see Zipcar usage data regarding less urban college settings (like the Zipcars at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois – currently, there is a Toyota Matrix and Toyota Prius available on campus) compared to the big cities. Ultimately, is a car-sharing model the end goal or a middle step between gasoline powered vehicles and vehicles of the future that will be powered by something cleaner and cheaper?

Selling a car by selling Detroit

The troubles of Detroit have been well documented and discussed in the American media in recent years (see here and here). So why would Chrysler mount a full advertising campaign (and I see this commercial almost every commercial break at times) based on Detroit  for its new 200 model? See the long-form (2:03) video here.

The entire campaign seems to be built around this idea that Detroit is something different: the ad says it is not New York, Chicago, or Las Vegas. While we get some typical shots, of a high school team running and a woman ice skating, the emphasis is on their hard work. The scenes on the street are at night with steam coming out of manhole covers as the 200 rolls along. The longer ad features Eminen, perhaps the only celebrity known to most Americans as being from Detroit (does Kid Rock count?). And all of this is driven home by the tagline: “Imported from Detroit.”

Perhaps the strategy is this: why not take all of this talk about Detroit’s darker side (and the commercial mentions that this is a “town that has been to hell and back”) and turn it around so that the commercial makes a positive point about this gritty, tough, and edgy car. Will this explicit linking to Detroit, a city on the decline, boost sales of a particular car model? Do Detroit residents see this commercial as positive and representative of their city?

Richard Florida argues cities increase levels of inequality

Richard Florida, dubber of the Creative Class, argues that data shows that cities exacerbate levels of inequality:

“Something fundamental has changed in our economy, and it’s happening at the metropolitan level,” explains Baum-Snow. “If we want to understand what’s causing the wage gap, we now know we need to look at the unique economies of our larger cities,” adds Pavan.

Both the U.S. and the world have grown increasingly spiky, with our socio-economic divide increasingly overlaid with a growing economic geography of class.  Big cities like New York and LA have attracted wealthy people not just from America but from around the world.  This trend reflects the growing advantages of geographic clustering or agglomeration.  The larger and more populous a city or region, the more likely it is to have the human capital and economic ecosystems required to support the most advanced — and hence the highest-paying — technologies and industries.  Bigger cities attract more innovators, more entrepreneurs, and more highly skilled and ambitious people in general, and provide a fluid environment where these individuals can combine and recombine their skills. Big cities also generate powerful economies of scale and scope, resulting in higher rates of innovation, new firm formation, and productivity.  They attract better-educated, better-trained, more-experienced workers, driving up wages.

At other side of the spectrum, manufacturing, which once clustered in and around large cities and metros, has shifted to less expensive suburban, exurban, and off-shore locations. And large cities have become home to a large and growing contingent of lower-skill, lower pay service jobs — from childcare and food preparation to retail sales and personal services.  Taken together these factors have in effect divided or bifurcated the labor market in big cities into highly paid “creators” and much lower-paid “servers.”

On the other side, Florida also shows a (very modest) correlation that city size is related to higher wages. But overall, Florida argues that cities draw both the uber-wealthy and those who “serve” the city.

Florida doesn’t present much data here so we would need more analysis in order to figure out what is going on. Does this argument present a  counterpoint to these two articles about the future of cities and suburbs in Foreign Policy last fall? It is hard to tell – Florida also says that cities are centers of innovation and entrepreneurship. And even if cities do have extreme levels of inequality, do they benefit larger society enough to offset the inequality within their borders?

(Interestingly, both Florida’s data and the study he cites use metropolitan areas to mean cities. This makes a lot of sense: central cities and suburbs should be viewed more often as single, interdependent units. Would the inequality be even more pronounced if the analysis was limited to central city borders?)

In review of Triumph of the City, summary of how city dwellers view the suburbs

As he reviews the new book Triumph of the City, a reviewer summarizes how city dwellers view the suburbs:

But look past the rhetorical flourishes, and you see an ambivalent verdict on post-1960s urban policy: It is often the actors most philosophically “urbanist” in intent that are the most deleteriously anti-city in effect. Mr. Glaeser brings us, in striking detail, a gated subdivision in the Houston outskirts called “The Woodlands.” The city dweller’s inborn cultural revulsion to the place is the stuff of any number of Sundance dramas: the sterility of the McMansions, the moral vacuity of the micropolitics, the ecological nihilism of the SUVs. But the appeal of such prefab townlets—one million people have moved to the Houston area since 2000—has little to do with culture; the Sun Belt beckons because urban California and the Northeast have radically distorted the market for any city’s most crucial commodity: property.

These complaints about suburbia do seem to be commonly found in Sundance-type dramas, books, and music. This is practically its own genre: the “average person” (often middle to upper class whites) finds emptiness in sparkling (but shallow) suburbia yet comes alive when encountering something different than white, crass, depressing suburbia. But as the reviewer notes, there are reasons that people move to places like Houston.

(A condensed version of this book’s argument, particularly about how skyscrapers will help the city thrive,  can be found here.)

City locations straddling the fine line between acceptable and edgy

Certain urban neighborhoods draw attention because they are “edgy” and offer something different than mainstream American locations. What happens when these “edgy” areas start to disappear or start to become established, mainstream places? Here is a look at this process in New York City:

Around countless corners, the weird, unexpected, edgy, grimy New York — the town that so many looked to for so long as a relief from cookie-cutter America — has evolved into something else entirely: tamed, prepackaged, even predictable.

“What draws people to New York is its uniqueness. So when something goes, people feel sad about it,” says Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the City University of New York…

If there’s one thing that doesn’t change in New York City, it’s nostalgia. Consider Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. After his election in 1934, he worked to remove the pushcart peddlers clogging the streets of the Lower East Side, viewed by many as a problem.

Once they were gone, people missed them.

A couple of thoughts about this article:

1. Cities thrive on these edgy or odd locations. The whole city doesn’t have to be different but young people (and perhaps even the Creative Class) tend to like these edgier locations. When it becomes too mainstream, people move on to the next novelty. But the character of a city is expected to be more unique and odd than a typical suburban setting.

2. The article highlights how people generally don’t like change, even if it is dealing with issues they once thought were problems.

3. I wonder how much money this has been worth to New York City. For example, what kind of taxes did the seedy Times Square bring in compared to the sanitized and Disneyfied version of Times Square? Certainly, some of these areas are now more palatable to suburban residents and families, broadening the group of people who might visit a location.

4. This is a reminder that what is now “edgy” or “cool” likely won’t stay that way for long. Cities, in particular, change fairly rapidly as new residents and businesses move in and out. I’m sure more edgy places will pop up in New York City.

4a. Could a city develop a “historical preservation district” (or something like it) to protect an edgy establishment or block? By making it official, does the site automatically lose some of its edgy status?