Atlanta (David Tulis/AP)

Congratulations to Atlanta, which for the second year in a row has been declared the most unequal city in the United States.

How does a city win this coveted title, you may ask? Well, it is not easy. It requires having the household incomes of your wealthiest residents be worth nearly 20 times —  again: twenty times — the incomes off your poorest residents in 2013, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution. It requires having households in your 98th percentile register incomes of more than $288,000, while having those in the 20th percentile earning a hair under $15,000.

Now, the gulf may be the biggest in Atlanta, but dollar-for-dollar, Atlanta’s richest residents are far outshined by their peers out west. San Francisco had the second-biggest gap between its richest and poorest residents, but its richest residents made so much more money than anybody else on the Brookings list: Households in the richest percentile there made more than $423,000, which is a crazy amount of money. (Stop what you are doing right now and go invent something. Disrupt somebody, disrupt something, disrupt anything. You are wasting your time reading these words when you could be inventing a dating app for people who are allergic to tomatoes.) Meanwhile, the bottom percentile in that city earned $24,000. This may be a good time to mention that Census data shows that  a quarter of Atlanta’s residents lived below the poverty line between 2009 and 2013, compared to 13.5 percent of San Francisco’s residents over that span.


The Brookings researchers looked at the country’s 50 biggest cities and examined recent trends, looking in particular at the richest people (those that earn more than 95 percent of other households) and the less well-off (households that earn 20 percent of what other households earn). Brookings did the same thing last year, finding that big cities have more income inequality than the rest of the country and reporting that rich households in big cities are richer than the national average, while poor households in big cities are poorer.

So what happened in 2013 versus 2012? Well, the gap grew. In 2013, the big-city gap between the richest and poorest households was larger than it was a year earlier; the richest homes earned 11.6 times as much as the poorest homes, up from a ratio of 10.8 in 2012. This gulf was ahead of the national average in both years, too. And the overall trend is going in a really good direction — if you are rich, as my colleague Emily Badger points out. Raise a glass of something very pricey for your people in Seattle, Cleveland, Louisville and Portland, because incomes were up for the people who live there and were already pretty rich. A dozen cities in all saw the incomes of their richest residents go up “by a statistically significant margin” last year, the Brookings report says. Seattle’s wealthiest residents saw their household incomes go up by about $36,000, or nearly 15 percent.


There were also some gains among the poorest households in the biggest cities. In Jacksonville, Fla., households in the 20th percentile saw their incomes go up by about $3,180 to $20,770, an increase of 18.1 percent. That makes Jacksonville one of the few cities that saw some of the biggest percentage growth for its poorest residents as well as its richest (the 95th percentile saw their incomes rise by $21,000 to about $175,000, a jump of 13.8 percent).

What causes the gaps between rich and poor? A 2013 study that explored the concept of income mobility in the United States came up with some factors that it said were common among areas where the poorest residents struggled to reach higher income groups. Researchers determined that areas with more black residents were likely to have limited income mobility (more than half of Atlanta’s residents are black), while cities with more sprawl and higher commute times were also likely to have worse upward mobility (Atlanta’s chief exports are congestion and traffic). That study looked at the country’s 50 biggest cities and determined that Atlanta residents were near the bottom in terms of odds of moving from the poorest income bracket to the richest, while San Francisco was near the top of the list. (The New York Times has a nifty interactive map based on the study.)

This latest report just tends to highlight something that we have already heard: As the country has slowly climbed out of the smoking economic wreckage left behind by the recession, the richest people have reaped the benefits of recovery while middle-class and poor are being shut out. The worsening gulf between rich and poor is further proof of this, according to the Brookings report: In 2013, nearly half of the 50 biggest cities actually saw a bigger gap between their richest and poorest homes in 2013 than they had in 2007, researchers found. The two cities with the biggest increases in their inequality over that span? Atlanta and San Francisco.


Emily Badger on how this report shows the dramatically different trajectories for people with higher and lower incomes