At this point, broad agreement has existed for years that inequality is one of America’s most pressing issues. And yet it appears that very little progress has been made in tackling the problem.
That may explain the appetite for stories purporting to rank cities around the country by their level of “inequality,” allowing readers to shake their heads at the excess of places such as New York City (which, by virtue of the large number of extremely high earners, usually scores quite poorly), and take a closer look at relatively egalitarian cities, hoping that they might have something to teach.
But unfortunately, the wonk’s axiom that “extreme cases make bad policy” is true more often than not. For one, these rankings often use a sub-regional lens, picking out “egalitarian” suburbs that earn their title by banishing all affordable housing—and the low-income people who need it—to other parts of the metropolitan area. Even where an entire region has relatively low levels of inequality, drawing lessons that are applicable to other cities can be extremely challenging.
Take, for example, the case of Ogden, Utah. Two recent articles—a summer story in the Los Angeles Times and a recent Newsweek cover story—have suggested that the city has worked out the recipe for equitable development.
The premise of both of these stories is that as measured by the Gini coefficient—the most common way to measure income inequality—the Ogden-Clearwater metropolitan area is the least unequal in the country. But what does that actually mean for everyone else? There’s actually both more and less to the story than meets the eye.