Myth: American cities have undergone inversion, in which poorer people are more suburban than richer people.
Reality: at least on the level of people commuting to city center, wages generally rise with commute distance. In particular, the phenomenon of supercommuters – people traveling very long distances to work – is a middle- and high-income experience more than a low-income one. This is true even in Los Angeles, a Sunbelt city with more of a drive-until-you-qualify history than the Northeastern cities. The only exception among the largest US cities is San Francisco, and there too, the poorest distance is 5-10 km out of the Financial District.
All data in this post comes from OnTheMap and is as of 2017, the latest year for which there is data. The methodology is to define a central business district, generally a looser one than in past post but still much smaller than the entirety of the city, and look at people who work in it and live within annuli of increasing radius from a specific central point within the CBD. OnTheMap puts jobs into three income buckets, the boundary points being $1,250 and $3,333 per month; we look at the proportion of jobs in the highest category.
I report the annuli in kilometers, but technically they’re in multiples of 3.11 miles, which is very close to 5 km.
|City||New York||Los Angeles||Chicago||Washington||San Francisco||Boston|
|CBD||3rd, 60th, 9th, 30th||I-10, I-110, river||Congress, I-90, Grand||6th, R, river, E||Broadway, Van Ness, 101, 16th||I-90, water, Arlington|
|Point||Grand Central||7th/Metro Center||State/Madison||Farragut||Market/2nd||Downtown Crossing|
In all six metro areas above except Los Angeles, the income in the innermost 5-km circle is higher than in the 5-10 km annulus. In Chicago that inner radius is in fact the wealthiest, but in Boston it’s below average, and in New York, Washington, and San Francisco it is poorer than wide swaths of suburbia. There is always a large region of poverty in an urban radius, which is roughly the inner 15 km in Los Angeles, the 5-20 km annulus in New York, the 10-15 km radius in Chicago, and so on.
This of course does not take directionality into account. In Chicago, it is especially important – to the north, there is wealth at all radii, and to the south, there is mostly poverty. In contrast, in New York directionality is less important, and it is in a way the purest example of the poverty donut model, in which the center is rich, the suburbs are rich, and the in-between neighborhoods are poor, without wedges that form favored quarters or wedges that form ill-favored quarters.
The importance of this is that because the inner and outer limits of the poverty donut are slowly moving outward, there is talk of suburbanization of poverty – or, rather, there was in the decade leading up to corona, but I suspect it will return once mass vaccination happens. However, even now, American cities are not Paris or Stockholm, where wealth mostly decreases as distance from the center increases, even though both cities have intense directionality (rich northeast, poor south and west in Stockholm, and the exact opposite in Paris). The poorest place remains the inner city, just beyond the near-downtown zone at what I would call biking range from city center jobs if any American city had even semi-decent biking infrastructure.
This contrasts with various schemes to subsidize suburbs that assume poverty has already suburbanized. Massachusetts, where even in the inner 5 km radius the $40,000+ share is below average, has a concept called Gateway Cities, defined to mean roughly “low- and lower-middle-income cities that aren’t Boston.” Of those, about one, Chelsea, is inner-urban, while the others include Springfield and various ex-industrial cities that are generally no poorer than Boston and lie amidst suburban wealth, like Lowell and Haverhill. Based on the idea that Massachusetts poverty is in the Gateway Cities and not in Boston itself, it justifies vast place-based subsidies that mostly go to people who are decently well-off while Dorchester has to beg for slightly better public transportation to Downtown Boston.
In New York, one likewise hears more about the poverty of Far Rockaway than about that of Harlem. There’s this widespread belief that Harlem is no longer poor, that it’s fully gentrified because there’s one bagel shop on 116th Street that caters to a mostly white middle-class clientele. This is related to the stereotype of the Real New Yorker, weaponized so that the cop or the construction worker who is a third-generation New Yorker and lives at the outermost edge of the city is an inherently more moral person than the Manhattanite or the immigrant and is the very definition of the working class while earning $90,000 a year. This goes double if this Real New Yorker lives on Long Island, usually with some catechism about how the city is too expensive even though the suburbs are about equally costly. The one place-based policy that would benefit the city, having the state integrate its schools with those of the generally better-resourced suburbs, is unthinkable.
It’s notable that this discourse that overrates how poor American suburbia is comes exclusively from people who tend to sympathize with the poor. People with Thatcherist attitudes toward the poor abound in the United States, and tend to correctly believe that the inner city is poorer than the suburbs, and if anything to overrate the extent of urban poverty. In either case, the conclusion groups of Americans reach is that the government must subsidize the suburbs further; all else is just motivated reasoning.
In reality, if one has the Thatcherist or Old Tory moralistic attitude that poverty is a personal failure then, with reservations, one should continue believing the large American city is inherently immoral. But if one has the attitude that poverty is a social failure that is solvable with social programs, then one must realize that there is more of this in central cities than in their suburbs, even faraway suburbs that are called drive-until-you-qualify because they are slightly poorer than some other suburbs, and therefore if anti-poverty programs must be place-based then they should be urban.