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SF Is the Second Most Unequal Major City in America

Scott Lucas | February 23, 2014 | Story Politics

San Francisco has a large degree of income inequality—we all know this. But thanks to a new report by liberal think-tank Brookings Institution, we can now quantify just how economically lop-sided we are.

The study, which examined the ratio of the income at the top 95 percentile of earners to that of the bottom 20 percent in the fifty largest American cities, bore out the anecdotal story—the Google bus, $4 toast, the Battery Club, and all the rest—that has becoming increasingly familiar in the past few years. San Francisco's rich are very rich and our poor are very poor.

The top earners in SF make 16.6 times what the bottom ones do. The only major city in America that had a higher ratio was Atlanta, which stood at 18.8:1. Below us were Miami, Boston, and Washington D.C., New York City, Oakland, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. The most income equal American cities were Virginia Beach; Arlington, TX; Mesa; Las Vegas; and Wichita.

Our inequality numbers are growing, too. In fact, from 2007 to 2012, we experienced the sharpest increase of the cities in the study. Income at the 20th percentile dropped by $4,000—whereas income at the 95th grew by $28,000. (The national figures rose slightly in the period.) It's hard to look at those numbers and not see the effects of the tech-led economic recovery since the crash in 2008: Our drop at the bottom level was high, but not very different from other cities. By contrast our jump at the top was higher than anywhere else.

Here's where the number become a bit tricky to parse. Of the top ten most unequal cities, our low end income ($21,313) was the second highest (just slightly behind that of Washington D.C.). We also came it at about $3,000 per year above the average 20th percentile income across all fifty cities. Ignoring cost of living (we'll swing back to that in a minute), our poor are slightly more well-off than average. Our rich, on the other hand, are really freaking rich. The average 95th percentile income was just above $196,000. Ours was $353,000. Not only do our rich have the highest income—they outpace the number two city (Washington D.C. by $60,000 a year). Conclusion? Our poor are slightly better off than average (though they've lost ground)—and our rich are way better.

The silver lining, if you can call it that, is that the most equal cities in the study are also, in the aggregate, poor ones. The wrinkle is, of course, the cost of living. As that increases, driven by the presence of the super-wealthy, San Francisco's poorer populations may be displaced—to spots like Oakland, which is also highly unequal, but has a lower average income as well. Figuring out how that process plays out—and what we want it to look like—is pretty tricky, and beyond the scope of the Brookings study.

Anyhow, enjoy your $4 toast while you can. San Francisco's GINI coefficient (another way of measuring income inequality in which a 0 is a prefectly equal distribution and a 1 means that only a single person receives all of the income) is 0.51. Just before the 1789 Revolution started, according to one estimate, France's was 0.54.

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