The Distribution of the Wealthy

November 2, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

After reading David Brooks’s column in the Times yesterday, I was catching up on podcasts of KCRW’s “The Business.”  The installment from three weeks ago included a short clip from the “30 Rock” pilot:
DONAGHY:  Sure. I gotcha. New York, third wave feminist. College educated. Single and pretending to be happy about it. Over scheduled, under sexed. You buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover. And... Every two years you take up knitting for... a week.
Like Jack Donaghy, David Brooks gets a lot of mileage out of cultural stereotypes. That’s because there’s some truth to them. Yesterday, the day after Halloween, he went back to the closet and pulled out his favorite costumes – two Blue, two Red.

The two costumes in each color reveal a basic inequality.  In the Blue
  • the urban elites, concocting complex financial deals and buying expensive merch
  • the unwealthy liberal liberal-arts majors in Zucotti Park.
In the Red
  • the solid middle-class, unpretentious and hard-working
  • dropouts struggling to find work and keep their families together – struggling but too often failing.
The Red inequality, says Brooks, is more important yet less noticed.

The Blue inequality is confined to “New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Dallas, Houston and the District of Columbia.” The Red inequality is “everywhere else.”

These costumes are colorful; they capture our attention. But they can mask other realities.* As Brad de Long points out, the economic and social gulf between the educated and the uneducated – Brooks’s Red inequality – is just as wide, perhaps wider, in New York as in Fresno. Brad also unfairly goes to Forbes magazine and waves the page showing the geography of the very wealthiest. It looks like there’s a bit of Bluish inequality in the heartland too.

“I count 6 of the top 10 living in regions where Brooks claims people like them don't live,” Brad says. But three of those six are Waltons (John-boy didn’t make the list this year), and ten is hardly all of the top 1%.

Howard Wial at the Atlantic  uses IRS data to give a more complete picture. He uses $200,000 household income as his cutoff point – the top 3% rather than the 1%. But while the lives at the 99th percentile may be different from those only at th 97th, the maps are probably similar.

Here’s where the wealthy are.

The twenty MSAs shown in shades of green (nice choice) account for slightly more than half of all such households. Which means that nearly half of the top 3% live everywhere else. The New York area is home to 11.5% of the wealthy. But then, it’s home to more people of every income. So Wial looks at the ratio of wealthy to nonwealthy. A handful of rich folks can make a difference in a small population like Washoe County, NV and Natrona County, WY, which go from gray to green (who’s rich in Casper?). But in Phoenix, the population is so large that the although many wealthy people live there (2% of all wealthy people in the US), they are under-represented.

It’s not surprising that the Occupy movement started in New York, nor that it has spread to other places highlighted in these maps. But as Wial says, Occupy protests have also sprung up in “such seemingly unlikely locales as Anderson, Indiana, and Texarkana, Texas.”

If you’re looking for only red and blue, you’ll miss a lot of interesting purple shades, from magenta and mauve to puce and plum.


* Brooks has done this before, notably in Bobos in Paradise. See Sasha Issenberg’s article in PhillyMag for notes on Brooks’s blindness to inconvenient realities and his just plain making stuff up.

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