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Map: America’s Income Inequality Is Even Worse Than You Thought

A new mapping project shows the stark divide between America’s rich and poor.

Purely geographical maps don’t tell the full story of cities. While they might lay out street grids, label boulevards and avenues, and demarcate buildings, they don’t expose the deeper currents that undergird the way cities function–particularly when it comes to income.

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A new data visualization from the mapping company Esri overlays maps of five cities with income data from the American Community Survey, exposing a snapshot of income inequality across the nation.

“In cities, income inequality is written all over the map,” says Allen Carroll, a cartographer who runs Esri’s program dedicated to telling stories using maps. “If you look at any major American city, you can see some pretty stark divides between wealthy areas and non-wealthy areas.”

[Screenshot: ESRI]
That’s exactly what his data viz reveals. In many metro areas, Carroll’s map shows poor neighborhoods near the center of a city, with a ring around the urban core of affluent suburbs–a phenomenon he calls “the donut,” which is connected to white flight from decades past. But that trend is starting to change, and the map reflects as much. In cities like Philly and Washington, D.C., centralized urban neighborhoods are becoming prime real estate for the affluent, which is pushing poor communities into the city’s outskirts. “You can now see the center of that donut starting to change,” Carroll says.

No big revelations there. But a second set of maps that examines income diversity within wealthy and poor areas has a more surprising insight: There’s far more diversity when it comes to the amount of money people make in affluent neighborhoods than in poor neighborhoods. That means that the residents of low-income neighborhoods are all likely to be very low-income, while residents of wealthy neighborhoods have much more variable income levels.

The final map of the project is a nationwide interactive that shows income distribution across the country. When you’re entirely zoomed out, the cities look like beacons of affluence, with rural areas, particularly in the South, standing out as impoverished. There’s talk of the urban-rural divide when it comes to politics, but the map shows how much that divide is tied to money and economic prosperity.

[Photo: krblokhin/iStock]
Carroll hopes to continue exploring income inequality in the U.S. in future maps. Possibilities include looking at how income levels have changed over time, investigating where people move when gentrification pushes them out, and examining how other types of data–like graduation and crime rates or access to mass transit–relate to chronically low-income areas. “I think people in wealthier parts of [cities] have lives that are so separate from the poorer parts that it’s so easy to forget,” Carroll says. “When you see the patterns displayed on maps it can serve as a reminder. “

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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