Study shows gains, and growing divide, in U.S. cities


December 14, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

Some see the sign of the revival of cities in scaffolding outside old buildings, others in the construction of sparkling new residential buildings, still others in the proliferation of Starbucks coffee shops.

Urban scholars William H. Lucy and David L. Phillips see the sign in an analysis of census data on income.

In a recent paper, the University of Virginia researchers found an uptick in per-capita income of residents of major cities compared with residents of their metro areas between 2000 and 2005. The rise was driven by income gains of non-Hispanic whites in a clear majority of cities, including Baltimore.

On the heels of decades of middle- and upper-class white flight to the suburbs, the increase offers affirmation of the trend that empty-nesters and young professionals are increasingly choosing to live in cities.

"It shows quite a reversal of fortunes," Lucy, a professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at Virginia's School of Architecture, said in an interview.

At the same time, Lucy and Phillips found that the per-capita income of blacks relative to the metro-wide figures declined in 32 of 40 cities they studied - again, including Baltimore.

Together, they say, the figures mark a sharp change from the trend that whites rich enough to have choices have typically chosen to live in suburbs while middle-class blacks have remained in the cities.

For the cities they studied, per-capita income in 2005 for non-Hispanic whites was $37,479, compared with $15,670 for blacks. In Baltimore, the figures are $33,961 for non-Hispanic whites and $14,858 for blacks.

The data suggest a growing urban economic divide along racial lines, characterized by well-off whites and poor blacks.

"I think that is very likely to occur if the trend continues," Lucy said.

Per-capita income for all city residents in the 40 cities in the country's largest metro areas rose from 88 percent of the metro incomes in 2000 to 90 percent in 2005, the researchers found. Per-capita income of non-Hispanic whites in the cities was 4 percentage points higher, compared with the metro areas, while that of blacks declined by an equal amount.

"Blacks with residential options were more likely to gravitate to suburbs during the 2000 to 2005 period, as they tended to do also during the 1990s," the researchers wrote.

Lucy and Phillips found that per-capita income for non-Hispanic whites was higher than in their metro areas in 25 cities, sometimes substantially so.

Baltimore was one of 11 cities in which per-capita income for non-Hispanic whites was less than that of the metro area, though only slightly. (The metro area includes the city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's counties).

But the per-capita income of non-Hispanic whites in Baltimore, compared with that of the metro area, was 9 percentage points higher by the middle of the decade than at the start of it, the fifth-largest increase, behind Boston, Atlanta, Kansas City and Chicago. The relative per-capita income of blacks in the city, meanwhile, declined by the nationwide average of 4 percentage points.

What's more, Baltimore showed an increase of 5 percentage points in the median family income of non-Hispanic whites. That put Baltimore in the middle of the pack among 23 cities that showed gains in this category.

Those gains are particularly important in light of what Lucy and Phillips say is the "accurate belief that cities have had less appeal to middle-income families with children than to singles, young married, empty-nesters and retired persons."

"When you have both [per capita and family income] going up, it's particularly impressive," Lucy said.

Given what he called Baltimore's reputation for "aggressive and successful urban reinvestment strategies" dating back to the creation of Charles Center, Lucy said he was surprised such gains had not been evident before now.

"Here, for the first time, gains are present and quite large," he said.

Nationally, Lucy and Phillips wrote in their paper, the condo boom around downtowns has "contributed to relative income increases in cities, especially for young professionals and middle-aged and elderly empty-nesters."

Analyzing the data for Baltimore, Lucy found an increase in condo ownership, though not as great as that in some other cities.

"To me, this suggests that Baltimore has begun its ascent in response to ... more boomers, changing preferences for city and suburban locations, and, perhaps, responses to declining crime rates ... and some positive local government performance," he wrote in an e-mail.

Lucy said he expects the trend in non-Hispanic white income to continue, but he said he was less certain about the direction in black income.

The upshot?

"If white gains continue and black income declines, disparities will increase," he said. "But the tax base should also increase. More political tensions may occur, but perhaps there will be more resources for public services."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.