The four U.S. states with the highest levels of income inequality are, in order, New York, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Mississippi. When mapped at the county level, however, New York and Connecticut appear to have lower levels of inequality than Louisiana and Mississippi. The seeming discrepancy is easily explained by population density. In New York and Connecticut, high GINI coefficients are found in densely populated counties that are part of the greater New York metropolitan area; counties with smaller cities, in contrast, tend to have average levels of income inequality, whereas most rural counties in these states have relatively low levels. (Unfortunately, the scale of resolution on the maps that I have used does not adequately reveal this phenomenon; most of New York City, for example, is obscured by the heavy black line that is used for state boundaries.) In Louisiana and especially Mississippi, in contrast, many rural and semi-rural counties are characterized by pronounced income inequality.
But how do the high levels of income inequality in the New York area compare to those found in and around other major U.C. cities? To address this question, I extracted details from the county-level GINI map of the United States to show the situation in the vicinity of 16 major metro areas found across the country. As can be seen, in each case the central county or counties, those with the highest population densities, have higher levels of income inequality than the more suburban and peripheral counties.
Such comparisons are made difficult, however, by the incommensurable nature of the units. In some cases, inner counties are extremely small; San Francisco County, for example, is coterminous with the city of San Francisco, whereas New York City is itself divided into multiple counties. In contrast, Phoenix tends to vanish in the vast expanse of Maricopa County.
But even with these limitations in mind, there are still some intriguing lessons to be drawn from these maps. At the high end of the inequality spectrum is Miami, followed by New York and San Francisco, where almost all counties in the greater metro areas have average to high GINI coeffiecient. Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington DC/Baltimore, in contrast, are surrounded by suburban and peripheral counties with relatively low levels of income inequality. I was surprised to see this pattern in the Washington D.C. area, which is by some measures the wealthiest part of the country. As can be seen on the small map, Baltimore and the District of Columbia are, not surprisingly, characterized by high inequality, as is, more surprisingly, rural Talbot County in eastern Maryland. Affluent Montgomery County, in contrast, falls in the middle category.
Many of the country’s major metropolitan areas saw population decreases between 2020 and 2022. Such declines tended to be steepest in areas of pronounced inequality. The New York metro area, for example, lost 2.6 percent of its population and the San Francisco metro area 3.6 percent, the steepest drop in the country. The less unequal Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, and Phoenix metro areas, in contrast, all gained population. But exceptions are certainly found. The Washington, D.C. area, with its relatively income-equal suburban counties, lost population, although just barely (0.21 percent), while the highly unequal Miami metro area gained population, although again just barely (0.02 percent).