Howard Bradley knows what equality looks like.
The son of a nurse and a firefighter, he grew up in a neighborhood of Springfield, Tenn., characterized by what he calls “genteel poverty”: People didn’t have a lot of money, but they had enough to eat, and their homes were well-kept. Everybody went to the same high school, so the poor and the relatively wealthy did the same homework and competed on the same teams.
“If everybody’s poor, you don’t feel poor,” says Bradley, 60, who then went on to teach history at that same high school for 26 years. “It was people trying to put on their best face.”
These days, Bradley is the county mayor of Robertson County, where he’s lived all his life. And recently, he’s presided over something of a triumph: the biggest reduction in income inequality over the past five years, among counties with more than 60,000 people, according to data released today by the Census Department. That’s particularly remarkable at a time when the metric used to measure income disparity — known as the Gini coefficient — has stayed flat for the rest of America, after decades of the rich getting richer while the poor were stuck in place.
To be clear, while Robertson County’s Gini coefficient is also low in relative terms, it isn’t the most equal place in the country. That honor belongs to Sherburne County, Minnesota, a 95 percent white jurisdiction sandwiched between Minneapolis and St, Cloud. (The most unequal counties tend to be urban areas that attract the economic elite as well as poor folks who need social services: The top 15 includes San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Manhattan and Atlanta).
Rather, Robertson has seen the biggest narrowing of incomes since the recession, with both a reduction in the number of people making very little money and in the number of people making lots of money (the county’s population remained almost the same, though it had grown significantly between 2000 and 2010). In the meantime, more people have been making near the median income — which barely budged, hovering around $50,500.
Over the long term, equality is correlated with mobility: According to research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, those who grow up in more equal environments also experience more economic mobility than those faced with strong disparities.
So, what can we learn from Robertson’s middle class resurgence?
Well, the first thing to know is that the income numbers measure people who live in a place, not the salaries of the jobs that exist in that place. And Robertson is something of a bedroom community: About 70 percent of residents actually commute to jobs outside the county, Bradley says. You can get more house for your money in Robertson County than you can in Nashville, the economic engine that’s just a 30 minute drive south, so many people choose to live there and commute into downtown.
That out-migration might help explain the more than 30 percent drop in the number of high-paying finance and insurance jobs; the city’s banking industry was hit hard during the recession and has only recently begun to recover. It also might have something to do with the increase in construction employment. While Robertson County hasn’t added a huge number of housing units or office buildings, the Nashville area has cranes and excavators everywhere, and needs people to run them.
At the same time, however, Robertson County itself has beefed up employment and incomes. Its large manufacturers — like Electrolux, which makes millions of stoves and refrigerators per year — have added both line production jobs and better-paying research and development jobs. It’s also benefited from Middle Tennessee’s booming auto manufacturing industry. Although Robertson County itself doesn’t have one of the large plants that came to the area for the low union density and fat incentive packages, it does have some of the suppliers that make the pieces that go into those cars and trucks.
“Virtually everywhere we’ve been, there’s talk of expansion, talk of adding employees,” Bradley says. “If you want to work in Robertson County, you can find a job.”
Those don’t necessarily pay very much, like they used to. But they are the kind of job that could keep someone out of poverty’s grip — the only thing that necessarily would, according to Bradley, since there’s been no other concerted poverty reduction effort in Robertson County. It can also fuel the growth of a consumer economy — large stores and restaurants — that in turn employ even more people.
Springfield’s historic main square is hopping these days, according to Margot Fosnes, president of the Robertson County Chamber of Commerce.
“I drive down the main road in Springfield on a Friday night and think, ‘is anybody eating at home?'” she says. “The restaurants and the parking lots are filled. People are not just surviving. They’re eating out, shopping, doing activities.”
Manufacturing and construction and retail, however, are not the only ways for a county to bolster its middle class. The county with the second biggest drop in inequality, Monongalia County, WV, has a very different story to tell: The small city of Morgantown is the home of West Virginia University, where enrollment has burgeoned through the recession, especially by out-of-state students. It also has several large federal agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Library, as well as two fast-growing hospitals and the generic drug manufacturer Mylan Pharmaceuticals. Finally, it’s seen a nice bump in employment from nearby fracking activity, which requires back-office jobs that show up in and around Morgantown.
Those aren’t the jobs of the super-rich — the finance and tech zillionaires who gravitate to the coasts. They’re just the kind of jobs that yield a comfortable living in the modern service economy, which Morgantown was uniquely well positioned to capture. For its part, Robertson is trying to help more of its residents work closer to home by attracting the back office functions of large corporations, which pay better than manufacturing wages. To that end, it’s marketing its low-priced commercial real estate and recently built a community college to pump out more people with degrees in fields like accounting and IT.
And what does it feel like to live in a place that all of a sudden has gotten more equal than it used to be?
It’s hard to put your finger on, says Fosnes. Maybe it’s something in the small-town community feel, where everyone feels like part of the same social universe, even if they don’t know each other personally.
“You sort of have a feeling here that people are all at the same level,” she says. “It’s more of just a feel than data, but you go to a high school football game on a Friday night and it’s not like there are the corporate executives over here and then everyone else.”