Income inequality in Orange County

Guest Post by Ian McDonald

Last week, USA Today published a report with this headline: "Income gap closes in rural suburbs, Census says." The data comes from the Census's American Community Survey for 2006, and ranks all 783 US counties with 65,000 people or more.

The article lists counties with the greatest and least income inequality, based on the Gini Index. Despite the headline and the trend it describes, Orange County NC ranks fifth-highest in the U.S. in this measure of income inequality. Only Manhattan NY, Orleans Parish LA, Fairfield County CT, and the District of Columbia surpass NC's Orange County.

Maybe the result is a statistical artifact of OC's college age population, but other counties dominated by big universities (e.g., Dane County, Wisconsin and Washtenaw County, Michigan) are far down the list. The data are available for public download from the Census web site.

Is OC's high national ranking for income inequality surprising? Is it troubling?


Dane County is primarily urban and suburban -- you have to get out to the second tier of counties around it (for example, Jefferson county where my great-aunt farmed before her retirement) to see the sort of rural/agricultural patterns that you see here in Orange County.

As a relative newcomer to NC and to Orange County, I'm not surprised at all by the income/household wealth disparity being so high compared to other areas. The way that Triangle-area development has been pushed away from rural Orange County has driven land and housing prices in Chapel Hill-Carrboro (and Hillsborough now, too) sky high, and the lack of rural development has pushed those household incomes down.

You could re-frame the statistics to show that at least Orange County hasn't pushed its low-income rural residents off their land yet. One reason why Dane County, Wisconsin doesn't have such a disparity is because the farms I used to pass as a child in the 1970s have all been replaced by strip malls and sub-developments.

On the other hand, without sprawl, Chapel Hill-Carrboro's land values and housing prices are going to continue to climb, and the disparity is only going to get wider with every passing year. NC's population surge isn't expected to slow down any time soon.

(There's something wonderfully ironic about having to add 1 plus 2 in order to post about demographic statistical studies....)

I have had a little trouble (went to ACS website) recovering the study and the tables that apply to this, but I had a couple of methodological questions off the top:

1. The USAToday boxes lists "Orange NC - Raleigh-Durham" (whatever that's intended to mean) and compares it to DC and Manhattan, which are not suburban areas, to Orleans Parrish, which includes the city of New Orleans (nevermind questions about the post-Katrina economics of that area) and to Fairfield CT, which is the only truly suburban area listed. This is at best confusing, because either they should be comparing Wake-Orange-etc. to Montgomery-Prince Georges-Alexandria-Fairfax-etc., and so forth, or else they are comparing watermelons to raspberries.

2. Any summarizing statistic can be skewed by outliers, although presumably the statisticians did the usual mathematical dances to control for that. Nonetheless one or two multi-gazillionaires in the county can make the disparity figures wiggle sideways, at the very least. Remember also that wealthy people with residences in more than one place can name any place they want as their home. However, I would still have predicted that the Charlotte area would have had a wider disparity than Orange County.

3. The Guest Poster may be onto something re:college age residents, except that (as per #2) many list their parents' home as their legal residence. And I don't even want to get into guessing what they did about immigrants/guest workers/"illegal" or "legal."

Something just doesn't read right with this study -- I smell a few sampling or definitional rats here.

First of all, the "bottom" of the income range can't be less than zero, right? (How would you ever get a handle on indebtedness?) So the bottom is the bottom, so the issue is partly how high the top can be, as well as how many are living at which levels. The income disparity in a place like Manhattan has to be many times what anywhere else other than, say, Los Angeles -- which raises the same issue as #1 above: how are they defining their areas and how did LA, for example, get plugged into their scheme?

All that said -- is any large or growing income disparity in OC worrisome? On the one hand, large income disparities always bothers me on principle, given my philosophy and outlook. But on the other hand, it's one indication that we are diverse, for which I'm grateful.

Oh, I forgot to answer the question: Yes, it is troubling. It's going to make the yearly property tax questions that much harder to navigate, with every passing year. It's certainly not going to be helped by the perception that rich city dwellers come from outside the South, while the landowners are native North Carolinians.

And there's no easy answer. Many of the factors that make Chapel Hill attractive actually depress economic development in the rural areas. And if the rural areas were developed, the current lower-income residents would still be likely to leave or lose their land.

The inequality is only troubling to the extent that people have difficulties creating connections across the divide. In many ways, I think our community does a wonderful job of incorporating people from all economic strata. In other ways, it's incredibly difficult.

In my day job of coordinating the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program, I see lots of examples of people building meaningful and sustainable relationships across economic and racial divides. I think this helps our community have a tighter social fabric.

But I also see how difficult it is for kids to succeed in school when they're getting ready for a science fair and they don't have the money to buy posterboard and markers but the kid next to them created nuclear fission in a styrofoam cup.

I'll leave others to come up with ideas of how to reduce the inequality itself. While we're living with it, I think there is loads we can do to still make connections with our neighbors - whoever they are.

Graig, the divide in Chapel Hill is growing. Local policy should encourage an employment ladder - a way up.

I'm afraid Chapel Hill is getting more balkanized. Probably a short term condition as, I think, the Town will become so expensive that a young couple can't get their foot in the door, older folks that have contributed decades to building our community will be driven out and traditional blue collar neighborhoods will succumb to corrosive zoning policy.

I'm optimistic that we can turn from our current path but it will require vision, a commitment to responsible fiscal policy and a bedrock belief that there's a place for all of us in Chapel Hill.

Strip malls aren't the only conceivable form of rural development. I've read about initiatives in the Western part of NC to build on the crafts heritage of rural people as a form of economic development. No idea of these schemes have worked out as well in real life as they sound on paper (anyone know?). And here's a dream: what if our university system, when thinking about expanding, committed itself to the well being of the people and the environment of our state, rather than the profit margins of drug companies? Wouldn't it be logical to site the campuses needed--that would be laboratories of sustainable development, community building, etc in places like rural Orange, rather than Chapel Hill?


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