The Racial Income Gap in American Metro Areas

Just how bad are the current racial poverty and income disparities in cities? The map and scatterplot below show the gap between African American and white poverty rates in 104 metro areas in the US.

If the poverty rates among African American and white residents were equal, that trendline would be at 45 degrees. These metro areas tend to have significant racial disparities among their lowest-income residents. Most of the metro areas with the largest disparities in this map are in the north. The most extreme case of this is Boise, ID Metro Area, where 12% of white residents live in poverty, compared to 61.3% of African American residents.

In addition to poverty rates, income can also help illustrate how black and white residents fare in and around large cities. In this country’s largest metro areas, the disparities are significant and ubiquitous. The following chart shows the average distribution of earnings among black and white residents in the largest US metropolitan areas. The disparity in earnings is consistent and statistically significant; however, the extent of the it varies significantly by metropolitan area. The menu and sliding scale above the chart shows the distribution of White and African American earnings in each of the country’s 104 largest metro areas:

These 104 metropolitan areas are ordered by population size as of 2017. Most of these metro areas follow a similar pattern. In general, a higher percentage of African American residents occupy the lowest two income brackets. For virtually all metro areas in this dataset, the largest racial gap exists among top earners, with white residents typically twice as likely to earn $100,000+.

These extreme gaps in earnings among large-metro-area residents are symptomatic of even more entrenched racial inequalities. In 2015, an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston revealed that, while the average net worth of white households in the Boston metropolitan statistical area was $247,500, the median net worth of black households of Greater Boston was only $8. African-American residents were significantly less likely to own homes, cars, and other assets than white residents, and much more likely to be in debt. Last year, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a report suggesting that even after controlling for education, neighborhood effects, and family characteristics, African American residents continued to trail white residents on income mobility. The statistics I’ve presented on the poverty and income gaps are troubling, but they are also only the tip of the iceberg when looking at racial economic inequality in metropolitan areas.


Data sources: United States Census Bureau

Programs used: MS Excel, Google Fusion Tables, Google Sheets, Tableau