Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Income Inequality Revisited

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about income inequality but now I'm digging deeper into 2017 national data to see just how my town, Athens-Clarke, looks. The picture ain't pretty, but it can be explained. Here are the top counties nationally in terms of income inequality.

Greatest Income Inequality
  1. Radford City, Virginia
  2. New York, New York
  3. Clarke County, Alabama
  4. Twiggs County, Georgia
  5. Terrell County, Texas
  6. Watauga County, North Carolina
  7. Oktibbeha County, Mississippi
  8. Rolette County, North Dakota
  9. Suffolk county, Massachusetts
  10. Carroll County, Mississippi
  11. Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana
  12. Orleans Parish, Louisiana
  13. Clarke County, Georgia
I extended the list to #13 for the obvious reason, to make a point and show how lousy Athens-Clarke does in the national rankings. Think about it. We're #13 out of over 3,000 counties

So what is income inequality? By the data here, it's the proportion of the 80th percentile median income to the 20th percentile median income. (80th percentile means you make more than 80 percent of all other residents) So if you have really high and really low salaries in a county, you get a higher inequality statistic. New York has an 8.8, meaning the 80th percentile median salary is nearly nine times greater than the 20th percentile median salary. Athens-Clarke comes in at 7.4. 

Fun fact -- the least inequality in the U.S. can also be found in Georgia (Chattahoochee, at 2.7). Go figure. 

Blame College Kids?

To some degree the Athens-Clarke data may be skewed by college students, some of whom fill out census or other information as living locally and often have little if any significant income. After all, 29.9 percent of Clarke County's population is age 20-29 -- that's double the Georgia and U.S. rate. I looked at Census tract 4.02, which is around campus with 7,761 people, to see if students are indeed skewing the data and 86 percent are listed as below the poverty line. The median age is 19.2. Still think students aren't messing with the data?

More evidence. Look at some other college towns high in the rankings. I plucked a few out for a closer look. Keep in mind we're talking over 3,000 counties nationwide.

  • Lee County, Alabama, home of Auburn University, is ranked 69th nationally
  • Alachua County, Florida, home of the University of Florida, is ranked 74th
  • Orange County, North Carolina, home of UNC, is 131st
  • Boulder County, Colorado, home of University of Colorado, is 412th
  • Richland County, South Carolina, home of University of South Carolina, is 1076th
So in just looking at a few nearby examples, we see several college towns rank higher in income inequality than you might expect (Bama, UF, UNC), but a few are not so very high (Colorado, S.Carolina). 

Poverty ratings can be misleading for college towns, and often it's better to examine the percent of children under the age of 18 living in poverty, which will largely exclude college students. For example, the Census has 36.6 percent living in poverty in Athens-Clarke and a different data set has it at 38.1 percent. If we look at under 18 it's 39.4 percent, somewhat higher. Even more dramatic, 60.6 percent of a single female households with kids are below the poverty level. 

If I had time I'd download the raw census data and compute an age breakdown, but duty calls elsewhere. I'm willing to bet the income inequality numbers are boosted by the presence of college students. To what degree is unclear, and the presence of college students willing to work at low-paying service jobs can suppress the incomes for less educated folks in the county, so in some ways this is a double attack on income equality, or lack thereof.

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