US Increasingly Polarized – by Geography

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Rich or poor, old or young, white or black, red or blue – our differences cut many ways.

But a new divide has opened up, one based on geography. Stark new evidence shows that well-paid, highly educated people have moved to high-cost coastal cities over the past decade, while lower-income, less educated people have moved out.

American cities are “grow[ing] increasingly dissimilar along socioeconomic dimensions,” said Issi Romem, a fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California and economist for BuildZoom, a California website focused on development.

Gentrification is nothing new. But Romem’s analysis of U.S. intercity migration shows that gentrification occurs not just within city neighborhoods but also between cities. San Francisco is the most extreme example of what he calls “income sorting.” He estimates that the population moving into the Bay Area earns $13,000 more, on average, than the population that is moving out. People relocating to Seattle and Washington earn about $3,800 more than the people who leave.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Boston, where restrictions on development, coupled with the strong demand for the limited housing stock, are pushing up house prices and driving people out, including renters who can no longer afford the steep increases in rents.

These movements exacerbate society’s already high level of inequality. As cities or regions of the country become less integrated in terms of their residents’ incomes, fewer low- and middle-income groups will enjoy the particular benefits to them of living in the midst of those who are better off.

Upward mobility is one such benefit. A famous study found that lower-income people are more likely to move up the income ladder, relative to their parents, if they live in coastal cities with higher education levels, better primary schools, and more family stability. Other research shows they will also live longer if they reside in cities with more socioeconomic diversity.

But migration patterns indicate that the tide is turning in the opposite diection. Interior cities are becoming less diverse as the people leaving the coasts and moving to the interior have more modest incomes and education levels and tend to be older and more often renters.

Migrants to cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee earn up to $5,000 less than the people who are leaving them.

Rising housing prices have always driven some people out of neighborhoods or cities. But the trend seems to be crystallizing.

The interior cities aren’t necessarily struggling, however. With the national economy growing at a 4 percent annual rate in the second quarter, metropolitan areas like Provo, Utah, Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio are experiencing their own booms.

But if the persistent swapping of low-income for high-income residents continues to drive up the cost of living in coastal cities, this will no doubt add fuel to the migration patterns that have already begun to sort America’s haves from its have-nots.

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Paul Francis

Interesting article. Migration patterns continue to change due to a variety of factors. It’s something we normally don’t even think of. Thank you.


What a shame! Thank you for writing this article. It is so important to see what is happening. There are so many repercussions to this dilemma. The cities do not seem like places that are conducive to families and older people, and diverse people either. And those who are in the arts will have trouble, too. I wish there was a solution.


Interesting but flawed argument… of course people leaving cities in the middle of the country or the rust belt to move to coastal cities will see their income rise because the cost of living in those coastal cities dictates higher salaries for doing the same tasks. Conversely people who move to a rust belt city, like Pittsburgh, will make less but the cost of living is lower. Pittsburgh also has the seventh highest percent in-migration of millenials as of a June 2017 Time Magazine article…

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