Laura Adler Grey

By Laura Adler • October 19, 2017


Inequality has become one of the most pressing issues in American society. The vast and growing gaps between elites and the working or middle classes was the theme of the 2016 election, helping to drive the unexpected success of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And while the economic struggle of the working class has fueled political debates, racial and gender equality have also lagged: today median hourly earnings for white and Asian men are $6-10 higher than earnings for Black and Hispanic men, and men across all racial groups earn more than women of the same race.

Much of the work to address inequality must come from the federal government. Low and stagnant wages can largely be explained by national economic policy, including low minimum wages, reduced support for unions, and financial deregulation that spurred skyrocketing executive pay.

But cities have an important role to play in addressing inequality among residents. Cities are home to particularly high levels of inequality, with vast disparities between rich and poor. Cities also have tools to address inequality: local government can work with labor and education leaders to strengthen pipelines to good jobs; collaborate with developers and leverage policy to reduce housing costs; and even instate their own minimum wages—as Seattle did in 2014. In addition to major policy initiatives, cities also shape equity outcomes through the daily work of land use planning, infrastructure development, and growth management.

But for a city to address inequality, it must first have a strong understanding of where it stands. How much inequality does your city have? Is the gap between rich and poor growing or shrinking? How large are racial disparities? Are people with disabilities particularly affected? In order to determine how a city can deploy its tools—and develop new ones—to address inequality, we must first have strong equity indicators. Cities and their partners across the US have begun to invest in this process.

Getting Insight into Inequality: Equity Indicators across Domains

Indicators give policymakers essential insight into their current status and trends over time when it comes to issues of social, environmental, and economic concern. Since the early 20th century, indicators have become increasingly central to government decision-making processes. As inequality has moved to the center of the public discussion, government officials, scholars, and advocates have started to develop indicators that reflect both the level of inequality and whether things are improving.  

Income and Cost of Living: When we think of inequality, we tend to think first of income and cost of living. Do some people earn much higher wages than others? Are low wages sufficient to cover the cost of living in the area? Cities and regions are developing indicators to understand the extent of income inequality and affordability. In Central Texas, the Austin Area Sustainability Indicators project draws on diverse data sources to publish regular reports on social equity, including disparities in cost of living relative to income, housing affordability, and racial representation in leadership positions. 

Graph of Median Price in Austin-Round Rock MSA
Median home price compared to median family income, Austin-Round Rock MSA

While some indicators focus on cost and quality of life for those in the bottom half of the income distribution, other measures highlight the large gaps between the poor and the rich. For a comparative perspective, the Geographic Information System company Esri developed a mapping application called Wealth Divides, which maps both median household income and the density of households earning more than $200,000 and less than $25,000 across tracts

ESRI Wealth Divides NYC
Map of Manhattan median income by Census Tract

Gentrification: One of the most visible manifestations of urban inequality is gentrification. As neighborhoods change, the rich benefit from more luxurious amenities and rising home values, while middle and working class renters experience increasing cost of living and, often, eviction. A recent report from Generation Rent showed that the arrival of a high-end Waitrose supermarket was attended by a 25-50 percent increase in evictions.

Gentrification indicators are thus a crucial measure of divergent fortunes for owners and renters. As Chris Bousquet recently reported, several cities have made substantial progress in mapping these transformations: Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, and New York have begun to map displacement risk across neighborhoods, while Portland and Los Angeles have developed additional indicators of neighborhood change. While many of these projects reflect one-time efforts, projects like the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development’s Displacement Alert Project Map are developing systems that regularly update visual displays based on new information. 

Map of Bedford Stuyvesant
Map of Bedford Stuyvesant Building-Level Combined Displacement Risk Score

Health: Social and economic inequality are inextricably tied to unequal health outcomes: being poor, or having grown up poor, is associated with lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and a number of health problems. Health inequalities in the US are among the highest in the world—people in households earning less than $22,500 annually report less than good health three times more often than those making $47,000 or more. And vast disparities can be found within a single city.

To address these and other concerns, there is an urgent need for urban-level health equity indicators. Some cities, like Chicago, collect diverse data on residents’ health, but without organizing indicators according to issues of equity. In 2012, the City of Richmond in California put together a “Health Equity Report Card,” summarizing social and economic but also health equity indicators, from the rate of child immunization to the proportion of residents lacking health insurance. As Coburn and Cohen argue, the process of developing health indicators can be as valuable to improving governance as the indicators themselves: identifying and creating indicators allows stakeholders to debate what counts as a health issue, determine who is counted as an expert, and negotiate data transparency.

Bar Graph Asthma Hospitalizations
Rates of Avoidable Asthma Hospitalizations, Richmond, CA

In the past, cities suffered from a dearth of local health data—the vast majority of data was aggregated to the state and county level. That is beginning to change. In early 2017, the CDC announced an effort to publish city-level data for the 500 largest US cities. Together with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they have since launched the 500 Cities Project, which makes indicators and maps publicly accessible.

Education: In many societies, education is the primary route to upward socioeconomic mobility. Inequalities in access to quality education thus have a profound impact on the life chances of anyone who was born into low-income households. Within cities, disinvestment in the public school system has meant that those with more resources can access better options—including private, parochial, and charter schools—than the rest. In order to address educational inequalities, policymakers need to have a sense of where and how these gaps are the largest.

Recent reports from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Institute for the Study of Labor highlight two different measures of educational equity: inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome. Inequality of opportunity points to differential access to education, while inequality of outcome, or achievement, highlights how different groups fare over the course of their educational experience. Both of these are crucial factors: all students deserve the opportunity to be well educated, but not all students will benefit from an identical type of education.

While few cities have invested in robust educational inequality indicators, there are valuable resources available. The World Inequality Database on Education reports on a variety of indicators within and between countries, and the USC Center for Urban Education offers advice on how to develop indicators that tackle these issues and support the growth of “equity mindedness.”

High School Graduation Rates
High school completion rates by region

Race and Ethnicity: In the United States, race and ethnicity are among the most powerful and durable axes along which inequality is organized. The black-white gap has long been the most striking. Due to persistent inequalities in opportunity and discrimination, whites see better outcomes than black on most social and economic indicators: black Americans make roughly half the income of whites, are unemployed at nearly twice the rate, are roughly half as likely to own a home, and twice as likely to live in poverty. Long-standing inequalities have also led to deep differences between whites and non-whites in perceptions of the degree and meaning of discrimination and inequality. A 2016 Pew report showed that whites are roughly half as likely as blacks to perceive discrimination against African Americans by the police, in the courts, in the workplace, or in the voting booth. While these differences remain the most striking, whites also lead other racial and ethnic minorities in access to opportunity and in socioeconomic outcomes.

Cities are beginning to take stock of their degree of racial and ethnic disparity. The Boston Indicators project tracks diverse measures across racial and ethnic populations, including household income, linguistic isolation, and segregation. Even more robust is Seattle’s effort, through the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, to track diverse indicators of racial equity across areas of education, housing, jobs, and health. And more cities are moving towards a stronger engagement with issues of racial and ethnic equity: Oakland is beginning to track progress on efforts to improve outcomes for African American boys and young men, with aims to expand the program to more cities over time. 

Graph Household Income
Seattle Household Median Income by Race

Cross-cutting Equity Indicators

Several cities have developed programs to address social equity in conjunction with related issues of sustainability, or with attention to specific populations. San Francisco’s Program on Health, Equity and Sustainability developed the SF Indicators project to report on neighborhood-level measures of health, inequality, and environmental sustainability, ranging from the proportion of non-car trips to food market accessibility. In Washington, D.C., a program called DC Action for Children developed an interactive map for exploring the distribution of resources and the outcomes for children’s well-being across the city. These efforts, while more targeted in their goals, provide examples of diverse approaches available to cities as they plan to collect data and report on indicators of social equity. 

San Francisco Map
San Francisco Proportion of Non-Car Trips and Accessibility of Food Resources
Resource Map DC
Washington, D.C., Percentage of Children in Poverty by Neighborhood

How to Develop Indicators

Indicators are simple—summarizing data in ways that easily community information—but producing them can be complex. Fortunately, many cities are already well on their way to developing robust data collection, analysis, and open data programs. A few simple guidelines can help cities move towards developing indicators with a social equity focus.

Leverage existing data to construct equity indicators: Cities have lots of data. A social equity indicator often involves simply putting two kinds of data together in a novel way. City can draw from their open data resources and programs like the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership to gain insight into urban equity by comparing across groups of interest: you might examine health statistics, unemployment rates, household income, or educational attainment across groups based on race, ethnicity, immigration status, or socioeconomic origins. You might also consider how these measures vary across neighborhoods, using maps to plot variation or creating summary statistics by comparing the richest and poorest neighborhoods within the city.

Work with local partners: Cities have a wealth of local resources in the form of partners that can share data, analytical tools, or even researchers. Thanks to CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance, New York City officials can now examine 96 indicators to better understand challenges facing the city and inform policy priorities. Social equity is of particular concern to researchers and students: cities can take advantage of these interests to attract partners in the development of equity indicators.

Learning from other cities: Many cities face similar problems when it comes to social equity: racial and ethnic inequality are shared by most cities, and the gap between rich and poor only widens as cities grow in size. Cities can take advantage of these commonalities to learn from one another. For instance, gentrification is often the product of similar factors, such as proximity to transit and amenities. As a result, cities can learn about how to design effective indicators from each other, as Boston learned from Seattle’s experience to put together its 2017 Displacement Risk Map

Leverage technology to keep indicators up to date: While many cities are starting to develop a focus on inequality, social equity indicators—like other data projects—suffer from the limitations of one-off investments and a lack of consistent updating. While it might be useful to understand poverty rates in 2014, it would be more useful to know how the poverty map looks today. As cities develop their technical capabilities, there is opportunity to invest in automated data collection, analysis, and indicator updating.

Bring stakeholders into the indicator definition process: While indicators can help cities measure progress and inform decisions, the process of defining the indicators is also a valuable opportunity for public engagement. By working with local partners, and bringing the public into the conversation, cities can use the indicator development process to engage in robust conversations about the meaning of inequality—and even gain insight into social inequalities that might have otherwise been overlooked.

Connect indicators to the policymakers who use them: Indicator projects are enriched through public input, but indicators become actionable when policymakers are also at the table. Engaging policymakers early can ensure that indicators feed into existing information pathways and support ongoing policy processes. Indicators are always informative, but working directly with the policymakers that use them will ensure that social equity indicators also have impact.