Ranking cities from Miami to Boston to Wichita on inequality

A view of San Francisco's famed Painted Ladies victorian houses on February 18, 2014 in San Francisco, California.

In the past, a young up-and-comer with dreams of making a life in a vibrant, thriving city, could move to New York, Miami or Atlanta, and give it a go. As cities have become more expensive, and middle class infrastructure like affordable housing and good public schools has become less accessible, city-dwellers are increasingly squeezed into one of two categories: rich or poor. Today, those seeking a solidly middle-class lifestyle might be advised to pass on New York and instead try Omaha, Wichita or Oklahoma City, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots isn't so pronounced. 

"A lot of the cities in the United States that have the lowest levels of inequality are kind of big suburbs when you look at them," said Alan Berube, a Senior Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

In a new report, All Cities Are Not Created Unequal, Berube compared levels of inequality in fifty large American cities. He found the gap between rich and poor is rising in large cities on the East and West Coasts, while cities in the South and West like Las Vegas, Mesa, and Fort Worth, are more equal, and retain more of what the middle class needs. 

"They built a lot more housing over time that has managed to maintain a middle class, and they don't have sectors of the economy, like finance and technology, that tend to be driving incomes at the upper end of the distribution," Berube said. "They've got sectors like transportation, warehousing, and retail."

Those are industries, Berube says, where you're unlikely to strike it very rich, but where a middle-class income is still within reach.

Some, like Alice O'Connor, a historian at UC Santa Barbara, are troubled by what inequality means for the character of American cities. 

"This idea that a city is a place where people can go, not only to reinvent themselves and have a wonderful life, but can get ahead, is so rapidly disappearing," said Alice O'Connor.  

About the author

Noel King is a reporter for Marketplace's Wealth and Poverty desk.

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