Income Inequality: Everyone’s Issue, No Easy Answers

Fifty years after the beginning of the War on Poverty, income disparities are becoming the new buzz topic in 2014 politics.

Last week, President Barack Obama used the Senate debate about a bill to provide long-term unemployment help as a chance to bring issue to the fore. And by all accounts Democrats are preparing to push hard on that issue this election year, along with other income inequality topics like a minimum-wage increase.

Republicans have dipped their toe into the inequality discussion as well. Sen. Marco Rubio gave a speech last week calling for GOP to engage on the issue, talking about “opportunity equality.”

The American Communities Project sees the topic through two lenses. Looked at through the frame of policy, many of the concerns about disparities seem justified. But viewed through the political lens, it’s hard to see how either party uses it to great effect – at least in the short term – beyond stirring up their bases.

The income gaps in the United States at the community level are hard to ignore. Even using the average median household income numbers in our 15 county types, the differences are stark. The difference between income in the African American South, $35,754, (the poorest county type in light green on the above map) and the Urban Suburbs, $66,987, (the wealthiest in dark orange) is more than $31,000.

That’s a wide range. And the chart in the map shows that in nine of the 15 types in the ACP the median household income is below the national median household income of roughly $50,000.

Bearing all that in mind, income equality would seem like a ripe political topic. These numbers suggest there are a lot of people and a lot of communities on the short end of America’s income stick. But income inequality is not that easy an issue with which to score political points.

Look at that chart and compare it to election results and you won’t see any easily classified political break. Those wealthy Urban Suburbs are reliably Democratic, but Exurbs, the next wealthiest group, are reliably Republican. Those poor African American South counties went for Mr. Obama in 2012, but Working Class Country and Evangelical Hub counties, which both have average median household incomes of under $40,000, went very heavily for Republican Mitt Romney.

How does one explain those differences? Some of it has to do with our understanding of populism in the 21st century. In many ways Democrats and Republicans view the idea very differently and that’s something we see in the ACP.

For Democrats the populism is often framed as a question of income primarily – what is fair income distribution. So Mr. Obama’s speech was about “income inequality.” And that kind of language likely has better legs in Democratic voting types in the ACP because income disparities are a local concern.

The biggest Democratic types, the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, feature huge income disparities within them. In the Big Cities, for instance, even though the media household income is above the $50,000 mark, the poverty rate is over 17%. And there are far more $200,000-plus earners in the Urban Suburbs than any other type in the ACP, but the poverty rates in those counties are higher than the poverty numbers in the right-leaning Exurbs.

What of the African American South counties, which lean Democratic and have high poverty rates and low incomes? There tends to be a sharp divide in those communities along racial lines and a long history of the government involvement to address concerns of inequality where race in concerned. The president’s discussion on “income inequality” will likely resonate with African-Americans in those communities.

In many Republican leaning communities – Evangelical Hubs, Working Class Country, Graying America – there is also high poverty and lower median household incomes, but without the added dimension of a racial divide. Income inequality may be something people in these places read about in the newspaper or see on TV, but it isn’t something they see as much in their daily lives. The communities are much more uniform in their makeup and outlook.

And in those Republican communities, populism is much more about dislike and distrust of government – sometimes there is even hostility. Those counties tend to be more rural in nature with a stronger religious component so that even if people in those places read about inequality or see it on TV, the idea of Washington fixing it isn’t likely to go far.

In those places phrases like Mr. Rubio’s “opportunity equality” are likely to be a lot more popular. Plus, “opportunity equality” plays well in the Exurbs, where, again, there are high incomes and low poverty.

The point is while it looks like there is going to be momentum on the topic of income disparities in 2014, that’s not necessarily going to equal a lot of movement on the issue. The respective communities that make up the political bases of the Democrats and the GOP may agree there’s an issue, but they are likely to be divided on what should be done.


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