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The Rebirth of America's Midsize Cities Isn't All Good News

New research shows that as young people move into midsize cities, income inequality grows and makes life harder on the poor.
Photo via Flickr

America's increasing wealth gap is often pegged to financial hubs and major cities like New York and San Francisco, but new research shows the largest growth in wealth gaps is happening in surprising places: America's mid-size cities.

While cities like Atlanta, Dallas, and New York still have the largest disparity between rich and poor incomes, places like Seattle, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Louisville all had greater growth in their disparity than big cities from 2012 to 2013, according to a study released by the Brookings Institution.


The study's authors, Alan Berube and Natalie Holmes, pointed out that while the rich in those cities got richer by nearly 14 percent, the actual dollar amounts are small compared to that of the rich in larger cities. Berube also said that Seattle and San Jose are tech hubs that have seen huge booms in that industry in recent years, which partially accounts for their increases in inequality.

"But there's certainly something interesting going on in these [other] places," Berube told VICE News. "There's something of a general resurgence going on in all kinds of cities today; even cities with a lot of poverty and distress in neighborhoods are revitalizing their downtowns."

The rebirth of the midsize city, in which young, often high-income earners are moving to downtowns for the social benefits of living in a city and having shorter commutes to work, are actually affecting the city's wealth gap, he said.

"People who a generation ago would've moved to Shaker Heights [in Cleveland] want to live downtown, in University Circle; they want to live in these neighborhoods and have a more urban lifestyle. Since that demographic tends to have more money, they're helping to push up the income in these places too," Berube said.

In Cleveland, most of the residents' incomes and the city's economy have remained stagnant, but the increase at the top may help create more demand for jobs within the city, he said.


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Benjamin Ross, author of the book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, said that the gentrifiers aren't necessarily making income inequality any worse than it was before, but are merely revealing the inequality that always existed in the divide between cities and their wealthy suburbs.

As the young high-earners move into the downtown, the wealth gap that always existed is just becoming more visible, he said.

"Economic segregation has been a feature of the country for more than 100 years. The move to the suburbs hid that segregation, but now it's becoming more visible," Ross told VICE News.

The suburbs have lost their luster as an achievement for young strivers, he said.

"People who were brought up in the '70s don't see a front lawn and a car in front of it as an accomplishment. They see the long commute as something they don't like," he said.

If there is a downside to the rebirth of midsize cities, it's that people who can't afford to live downtown as prices rise are forced to move out to the suburbs and commute by car, Ross said.

"And that can be tough if you can barely afford a car or can't afford one," Ross said.

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Karen Gibson, a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University, said that even a booming midsize city like Portland, Oregon, has seen poor, black residents pushed out of historical black neighborhoods and out into the suburbs by the rising housing prices in the city. She called it the "suburbanization of poverty."


"As Portland became more attractive, the areas where whites would not touch because it had a reputation of being seedy and scary, well, a generation later that's where whites live," Gibson said. "Our cities are becoming like European cities in a way: The new rich are coming into central cities and the poor are becoming dispersed out into the suburbs."

Some cities have tried to raise the minimum wage to help those at the bottom afford to live within the city, the experts pointed out, but there needs to be more intervention at the housing policy level, they said.

"People talk about the right to the city," Gibson said. "Do other citizens who don't happen to be wealthy have a right to the city and housing?"

"Looking at what you do about it is not just macroeconomic policy, it's not just the Federal Reserve and the President and Congress but it's also the local people, who can invest in education and housing, and decide how they run their transportation system," Berube said. "A lot of what it takes to build a strong middle class comes from the local level."

Photo via Flickr