Using Data Visualization to Understand Wealth Divides in America’s Largest Cities

By Eric Bosco • February 7, 2017

  • February 7, 2017
  • GIS

The problem of unequal wealth distribution in American cities has never been greater than it is today. Nine out of ten metropolitan cities have experienced a shrinking middle class from 2000-2014, according to the Pew Research Center, and the middle class no longer makes up the majority of the population in the United States.

A critical step in addressing the problem of wealth inequality is understanding the nature of the problem and where it occurs in order to more effectively allocate resources and strategies like the promotion of affordable housing. Data visualization and mapping allow for a deep understanding of the issue and where cities struggle the most. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provider Esri created a story map, an Esri product that combines mapping with narrative and multimedia content, called “Wealth Divides” to give users a dynamic way to see and interact with data about this issue.

The story map focuses on five major U.S. cities with high levels of wealth inequality — New York City, Boston, Atlanta, Washington D.C., and San Francisco — and expresses how visible the problem is. One in five New York residents lives below the poverty line. Mapping median household incomes in the city shows that the wealth disparity is often visible within walking distance.

Map of NYC with dots showing most vs. least affluent households: Manhattan is most affluent with strong density and outer boroughs are less affluent

The interactive map also allows users to hone in on a specific census tract, view the total population and number of households, and see how many households have incomes either greater than $200,000 or less than $25,000. The nature of current wealth disparities does not isolate the wealthy and low-income households geographically; in New York City, the census tract bordering Central Park in the Upper East Side has a median household income greater than $200,000. Just a few blocks away, in East Harlem, the median household income is under $16,000.

In San Francisco, rapid gentrification, largely a product of the tech industry boom, has driven low-income residents out of what were formerly working-class neighborhoods. The median household income map shows a checkerboard of high and low-income neighborhoods. The coastal neighborhood of Potrero was once known as a working class neighborhood, but the current median household income stands at $179,806. Just a few miles south, another coastal neighborhood has a median income of $16,703. These stark divides are common -- as seen on the Upper East Side and East Harlem in New York, complicating the issue of how to achieve equity in the rapidly gentrifying enclaves of major American cities.

Map of San Francisco with wealth divide graphed; shows a checkerboard pattern but with increasing gentrification

The City of Boston ranks number one in the nation in income inequality, according to the Brookings Institution. In 2014, the highest-earning Boston households made nearly 18 times as much as those households that ranked closer to the bottom of the income distribution list. The Esri story map describes Boston as “a study in income divides,” highlighting its wide wealth disparity and unique neighborhood-by-neighborhood divides. One interesting and stark divide comes in two neighborhoods divided by the Franklin Park Zoo. On one side, the Jamaica Plains neighborhood has a median household income of $169,291, while directly on the other side of the zoo, the Forest Hills neighborhood has a household income of $34,366.

Map of Boston wealth divide with affluence concrentrated in Western suburbs and the Harbor area

The Wealth Divides map draws income and geographical data from the Pew Research Institute, Brookings Institution, Esri Living Atlas, and the U.S. Census Bureau and was created using Esri’s Cascade application. Explore the map here and dive in deeper to find out more about the nature of the widespread wealth divides in some of America’s largest, most prominent cities. And stay tuned to Data-Smart for more on how data visualization can be used to understand and solve complex urban problems, as the Civic Analytics Network will soon launch a contest highlighting the most effective and interesting interactive maps.

About the Author

Eric Bosco

Eric Bosco is a Research Assistant and Writer for the Ash Center’s Civic Analytics Network. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Eric worked as a journalist and research assistant with the Boston Globe Spotlight Team and as a staff writer at a regional newspaper in southern Massachusetts. As an undergraduate journalism student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, his investigative reporting for the Globe on the university’s controversial confidential informant program earned him appearances on national television and radio.