If you look very closely at America, you can see the poor physically growing apart from the rich, like a polar bear drifting out to sea on a broken chunk of ice.
A new report out today from the Economic Innovation Group (a “centrist” think tank funded largely by civic-minded tech executives) examines inequality in a somewhat novel way: by zip code. By gathering data on education levels, housing, income, poverty rates, employment, and business development in every zip code in America, they were able to show not just a raw picture of aggregate inequality across the country, but a geographically detailed picture of where the winners and losers in our economy are—and where they are going.
The report calculates that “more than 50.4 million Americans still live in distressed communities (the lowest-scoring 20% of zip codes), many unable to move to economic opportunity.” These “distressed” areas of the country are concentrated in the South, in the faded Rust Belt areas abandoned by industry, and in some inner cities. And the more hopeful elements of life are actually receding away from the least prosperous areas.
The economy—measured as businesses and jobs—is slowly vanishing from the country’s worst-off rural and urban areas. From 2010 to 2013, the most distressed 10 percent of zip codes lost 13 percent of their jobs and saw more than one in 10 business establishments close. During that same period, the most prosperous 10 percent of zip codes saw employment rise by a staggering 22 percent and the number of business establishments rise by 11 percent.
Not only is the economy moving away from the poor areas of our country; the people are as well.
In total, 84.4 million people—more than 27 percent of the U.S. population— reside in the one-fifth of zip codes where prosperity levels are highest. More Americans reside in the most prosperous 10 percent of zip codes than any other decile: 45.8 million people.
That is more than twice the number of people living in the most distressed 10 percent of zip codes.
It’s tempting to just imagine that if this continues on for a while longer, eventually the poorest parts of America will all be empty ghost towns, and we can rope them off and forget about them. Except for the fact that fifty million people live in them today.