La La Land on economic equality

Yale University researchers recently revealed a striking mismatch between perceptions of inequality and actual inequality.  Asked to estimate progress toward black-white economic equality, participants in several studies consistently overestimated racial equality for annual income, wealth, employee benefits, and hourly wages.  “The headline finding,” according to City Observatory, “is that the average respondent thinks that black wealth is about 80 percent that of whites; whereas Census data suggest that black wealth is about 5 percent that of whites.”

As reported by The New York Times, the study’s authors attribute these overestimates of racial economic equality to several factors:  continued economic and racial segregation, unconscious denial of a reality that doesn’t fit our idealized version of a fair democracy, and overgeneralization from other signs of progress toward racial equality (such as passage of civil rights laws and election of a black president). Blacks and whites alike overestimated economic equality, but estimates made by wealthy whites were furthest from the mark.

Although the Yale researchers didn’t collect data on geographic differences in perceptions of racial inequality, we can compare racial economic inequality in King County to national figures.  While the national black/white income gap is substantial ($22,794 in 2016, according to the American Community Survey), it pales in comparison to King County’s whopping 2016 disparity of $45,733.

And the disparity in King County has gotten worse.  Nationally, from 2006 to 2016 median household income grew by about 19% for blacks and for whites, preserving a consistent (and large) racial gap: at both times blacks earned $63 for every $100 earned by whites.  Over the same period in King County, black median income grew by 20%, lagging considerably behind the 36% growth of white median income.  While in 2006 King County blacks earned $56 for every $100 earned by whites, by 2016 the gap had widened, with King County blacks earning only $50 for every $100 earned by whites.

Many King County residents support the goal of achieving economic security for all.  Before we can do that, however, we first need to acknowledge our increasing racial disparities in the face of explosive economic growth.  Only then will we be able to rationally make policy choices that will move our region toward greater equity.

Communities Count has just updated King County data on income by race/ethnicity, and also presents recent national wealth trends by race/ethnicity and national black/white wealth trends for the cohort born between 1943 and 1951 (in their 30s, the mean wealth of whites in this cohort exceeded the wealth of blacks by less than $150,000; by the time they reached their 60s, the difference had grown to more than $1 million).  Other data on economic inequality can be found in a data spotlight, The rising fortunes of the top 1%, and charts on wealth trends by income tier.

Zooming in on neighborhood inequality – by county, city, and ZIP code

Recent reports paint very different pictures of health and wellbeing in King County. According to the 2016 County Health Rankings, King County is the 2nd healthiest county in Washington (San Juan County is 1st).  Looking for details behind the promising headline, however, King County’s 2016 City Health Profiles reveal deep disparities.  For example, 5% of Sammamish residents report that their health is “fair” or “poor,” compared to 23% in Burien – almost a 5-fold difference.  Similarly, average life expectancy ranges from 76.3 years in South Auburn to 86.2 years in Northeast Seattle.  Across 26 King County cities, wide disparities for everything from obesity and teen births to diabetes- and Alzheimer’s-related deaths are the norm, not the exception.

But these disparities do not occur in isolation. They develop in communities, often over generations, in a context of economic inequality. A new interactive tool, the Distressed Communities Index , enables users to zoom all the way down to ZIP codes in assessing key components of economic distress.  As shown in recent Communities Count updates on food, housing, and income, recovery from the Great Recession has been uneven at best.  Offering a closer look at economic inequality, the Distressed Communities Index is based on 7 complementary measures:

  • Adults (25 and older) without a high school degree
  • Housing vacancy rate
  • Adults (16 and older) not working
  • Poverty rate
  • Ratio of an area’s median income to its state’s median income
  • Percent change in jobs from 2010 to 2013
  • Percent change in number of businesses from 2010 to 2013

In the Auburn area, one of King County’s most distressed ZIP codes, 98002, is flanked by more prosperous neighbors – 98092 to the east and 98001 to the west.  The distress score of 80.8 indicates that ZIP code 98002 is more economically distressed than 80.8 percent of 26,000+ ZIP codes nationwide.  The much lower distress scores of nearby ZIP codes (see table) reveal that these next-door neighbors, although spatially close, are economically far apart.

Almost 1 in 5 adults in the central Auburn ZIP code (98002) do not have a high school diploma, more than double the rates of its immediate neighbors.  Similarly, the poverty rate in ZIP code 98002 (26%) is more than double the rates in adjacent ZIP codes.  Elsewhere in King County, distress scores are as low as 0.7 (ZIP code 98065) in Snoqualmie and as high as 93.3 (ZIP code 98134) in the SoDo/Harbor-Island/Duwamish industrial area south of downtown Seattle.

Distressed Communities Index and selected measures for King County ZIP codes

ZIP Code

98001 Auburn  west

98002  Auburn central

98092 Auburn  east

98065 Snoqualmie

98134 Industrial Seattle

Distress Index 






No High School diploma












Median Income Ratio (ZIP code/state)







Offering a new way to look at “spatial inequality,” this tool could prove useful to regional projects focusing their efforts on discrete geographical areas.