The notion of the middle class fading away in most U.S. cities isn’t supported by the evidence, says a recent Brookings Institution analysis of income data.
The two Kansas Citys and their largest suburbs are no exception. The report, which classified households by which income quintile they fell into, showed that Kansas City, Kan. (at 26.8 percent), and Kansas City, Mo. (at 23.6 percent), had higher than average percentages of households in the bottom income bracket. But in the three middle brackets, which together make up the middle 60 percent of U.S. households, Kansas City, Kan., had 65.9 percent of its households, and Kansas City, Mo., had 62.4 percent.
Besides the two Kansas Citys, the survey included Overland Park, Olathe, Independence and Lee’s Summit. The outer, faster-growing suburbs of Olathe (8.8 percent) and Lee’s Summit (10 percent) had half the 20 percent average of their households in the bottom bracket, and Overland Park (10.6 percent) wasn’t far behind. Olathe (30.8 percent) and Lee’s Summit (31.2 percent) also had the highest percentages in the top quintile.
But every area city had from 58.8 percent (Lee’s Summit) to 68.6 percent (Independence) of its households in the three middle-income brackets, and from 38.7 percent (Kansas City, Kan.) to 45.6 percent (Olathe) combined in the middle and upper-middle quintiles.
Alan Berube, deputy director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, said in a phone interview that he crunched the numbers after reports of protests in Baltimore gave the impression that that city was “overwhelmingly poor.”
“I wanted to add texture to these discussions,” he said, because even relatively strapped cities usually have substantial middle classes. And even affluent cities such as San Francisco and Seattle, he said, aren’t “playgrounds to the rich.”
Berube used annual household income data from 2013 collected by the American Community Survey and published by the Census Bureau, which cover the 575 metro areas with a population of at least 65,000. Berube and a research partner then classified households by annual income quintiles and noted how much of the highest quintile fell into the very top 5 percent.
The crunch did show that Baltimore had a large core of households in the bottom income quintile — 29.4 percent, almost half again as large as the 20 percent average. But the study’s figures, to Berube’s point, also showed that Baltimore still had 56 percent of its households in the middle three brackets, where 60 percent of households on average would fall.
Baltimore’s low-income percent was the 13th worst among big cities — those with at least 100,000 households — and 86th out of the 575 total areas in the survey. So that meant a dozen other large cities had even greater concentrations of low-income households, topped by Detroit (44.9 percent), Cleveland (43.2 percent) and Miami (36.3 percent), and including St. Louis at eighth worst (32.9 percent). And even in Detroit and Cleveland, 50 percent of households fell into the three middle brackets.
Besides having a large population in the bottom income bracket, St. Louis city had small percentages in the top 5 percent bracket and the next 15 percent bracket down. But St. Charles, to its west, was more typical, with nearly 20 percent of its households in each bracket. And affluent O’Fallon had barely more than 20 percent of its households in the bottom two brackets combined, which on average encompass 40 percent.
Outstate Missouri and Kansas’ cities — especially Springfield — had larger than average percentages in the lowest income bracket and fewer top-bracket households. But that still left at least 60 percent of each city’s households in the middle brackets.
The state’s biggest college towns, though, were not alike. Lawrence came the closest of any Kansas or Missouri area in the survey to an even spread among the quintiles. But Columbia had the smallest middle class, just 51.4 percent, measured by its total in the three middle brackets.
As for the “playgrounds of the rich” notion, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., came the closest among large cities in that their middle-bracket totals were the smallest, 44 and 46.6 percent, and their upper quintile percentages were much higher than the average — 38.3 percent for San Francisco and 33.2 percent for Washington. But both still had substantial percentages of their households in the bottom bracket: 17.6 percent for San Francisco and 20.3 percent for Washington.
Nationally, some smaller cities did show even bigger gaps between their top and bottom quintiles than Olathe and Lee’s Summit did. The biggest came in Bethesda, a Maryland suburb of Washington, where two-thirds of households had top-quintile incomes and only 4.3 percent fell in the bottom income quintile. On the flip side, Camden, N.J., had 48.2 percent of its households in the bottom quintile and only 3.9 percent in the top one.
The study acknowledged the wide differences between the relatively rich and poor urban areas. But Berube said, “People in the middle of the income distribution still dominate in most areas.”