The configuration of American cities largely revolves around income distribution, meaning that cities change based on how much its residents make. When areas in major U.S. cities like Bushwick in New York City or Oakland in the Bay Area experience gentrification or income redistribution, cities begin to adapt according to these changes. In an attempt to exhibit income distribution both as a social and economic phenomena in American cities, software company Esri has developed a number of maps to illustrate exactly that.

Mapping Incomes” covers a number of American cities as well as a nation-wide illustration of income distribution. Esri, the company behind the map, develops mapping and spatial analytics software and has produced a number of maps detailing events like school shootings in the United States and women’s health indicators. The company developed Mapping Incomes in order to shed light on the patterns of income distribution in American cities.

Mapping Incomes explains income distribution in American cities by illustrating three maps indicating three measures of income distribution: predominance, which is the highest number of households that fall within a certain income bracket, concentration of wealth and poverty, and income diversity.

The map illustrating the ‘predominance’ of an income range in one of the four predefined income brackets uses different colors to distinguish one income bracket from the other: orange dots represent households that make $25,000 or less, pink households make between $25,000 and $50,000, purple households make between $50,000 and $100,000, and blue households make more than $100,000. The size of the dots indicates the number of households that fall within a certain income bracket while the brightness of the dot points to the predominance of an income range within a certain bracket. The bigger the dot is, the more households fall within that income bracket.

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The map pointing to the predominance of income brackets, explaining what the luminosity of dots represents. (CC: Eris)

In mapping wealth and poverty concentration, however, the company takes another approach to pinpointing income distribution, comparing income distribution against the national average. Red dots point to households that make $25,000 or less and make up an aggregate which is less than that of the national income; whereas, blue dots indicate households which make $100,000 or more. In Chicago, for example, red households located in the south of the city and blue households located in the north of the city both exceed the national average in terms of annual income, which is 22.3 percent and 24.6 percent, respectively. The size scheme of the predominance map applies to this map as well, whereas, the brighter a dot is, the further it is from the national average.

income distribution

The second map developed my Esri illustrates the concentration of wealth and poverty. This map is a map that distribution in Chicago. (Eris)

Esri’s third map shows income diversity, predicting how likely households in a certain part of a city are to belong to different income brackets. The pink dots represent households that belong to the same income bracket; whereas, light green dots represent households from different income brackets that are located in the same part of the city. In Los Angeles, light green dots are scattered across areas like Hollywood and Santa Monica whereas in the heart of the city, the majority of households are represented by smaller pink dots. On the other hand, the majority of households in intercity Detroit are represented by smaller pink dots, meaning that most individuals living in the heart of the city are from the same income bracket.  

income distribution

The third map illustrates ‘income diversity’ in the general Los Angeles area. (CC: Eris)

After surveying six cities and putting together three maps for each, the final three maps are illustrations on a nation-wide level. The maps point to how income distribution across different cities follows a kind of urban-rural divide, meaning that the majority of higher income households, or a diversity of high and low income households at least, is concentrated in cities mostly on the east and west coasts. Aside from a handful of cities, the majority of Middle America is riddled with rural poor.

Almost three decades ago, Robert Reich, political economist for The New York Times, wrote about how a sense of ‘community’ in American cities thwarts a more equal distribution of income and reifies urban divisions based on income. “The renewed emphasis on “community” in American life has justified and legitimized these economic enclaves,” he writes. “Since most people in one neighborhood or town are equally well off, there is no cause for a guilty conscience.”

The divisions that came as a result of inequitable income distribution in cities lays the groundwork for phenomena such as gentrification, urban-income divides, such as the case with Chicago, and, eventually, the division of cities into two: a city for the rich and another for the poor.