The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 25, 2018

What separates the most- and least-inclusive cities in the country?

Economic prosperity in cities is not always shared. But some cities have harnessed economic growth to become more inclusive, so that all residents—especially historically excluded populations—can benefit from and contribute to economic prosperity.

In a report released today, we examine the relationship between economic health and economic and racial inclusion in 274 of the most-populous US cities over the past 40 years. In considering the 20 most-inclusive and 20 least-inclusive cities in 2013, five major differences emerge.

1. More-inclusive cities tend to be smaller and concentrated on the West Coast.

The highest-ranking cities on our inclusion index are smaller and concentrated on the West Coast. The 20 highest-ranking cities have an average population of 137,878, while lowest-ranking cities have an average population of 445,486. Considering this trend, it’s not surprising that suburban cities (which tend to be smaller) appear throughout the top 20, whereas central cities are more prevalent in the bottom 20.

Another interesting trend to consider is that 13 of the top 20 cities are on the West Coast, and the bottom 20 cities are overwhelmingly in the South and Midwest. Northeastern cities tended to rank in the middle of our sample, with only one appearance in the bottom set. 

top 20 and bottom 20 cities on overall inclusion, 2013

2. The share of people of color is virtually the same in our high-ranked and low-ranked cities, but the communities look different.

There is a less than a 1 percentage-point difference between the average share of people of color in our high- and low-performing cities. But further examination of the racial and ethnic groups that make up this indicator shows that although the share of Hispanic residents in the top 20 and bottom 20 cities is also almost identical (at 21.7 percent for the top 20 and 20.5 percent for the bottom 20, on average), the 20 most-inclusive cities have more than 5 times the share of Asian residents as the 20 least inclusive, and the bottom 20 have 2.5 times the share of black residents as the top 20.  

Hispanic, black, and Asian people, and the many subgroups they include, experience different barriers to accessing high-quality education, housing, and jobs, and our data only scratch the surface of understanding these factors.

Though isolating racial inclusion from general economic factors is a good first step to better understanding sources of exclusion, the disparity in Asian and black residents between our top 20 and bottom 20 cities speaks to inequities that could be hidden without further data disaggregation. Future studies should further disaggregate these data.

3. Segregation tends to vary greatly between the most- and least-inclusive cities.

The bottom 20 cities scored over 2.5 times worse on both income segregation (the variation of family incomes across census tracts within a city) and racial segregation (the distribution of people of color and non-Hispanic white residents across census tracts within a city) than the top 20 cities.

From recent research, we know there are real costs to segregation, like higher homicide rates in cities and lower levels of college degree attainment for both white and black residents, and that higher rates of segregation are associated with lower-performing economic regions

4. Investments in education might be central to closing the gap between more- and less-inclusive cities.

The bottom 20 cities performed over three times worse, on average, than the top 20 on both their high school dropout rate and their educational achievement gap between people of color and non-Hispanic whites. The high school dropout rate for the top 20 cities was around 2 percent, on average, and it was just over 7 percent for the bottom 20. Similarly, there was about a 6 percentage-point gap, on average, in educational attainment between people of color and non-Hispanic whites in the top 20 cities; that average stood at a whopping 20 percent for the bottom 20 cities. 

Though education policy is often dictated at the federal and state levels, cities can use strategies like preparing public school teachers for increasingly diverse classrooms and establishing pathways to affordable community college attendance to tighten the educational divide.  

5. More-inclusive cities tend to have higher median incomes.

The top 20 cities have a 42 percent greater median family income than the cities at the bottom of the list, with median incomes of $87,234 and $50,684, respectively. Partially, this is indicative of economic health—where communities with greater economic resources have greater ability to use those resources toward fostering inclusive communities. But it could point to a lack of affordability where low-income residents are largely unable to live in these cities.

We try to avoid bias toward cities unaffordable for low-income residents by including measures like rent burden and the share of people of color in a city rather than simple measures of poverty. A low poverty rate could mean that a city provides opportunities for low-income households to improve their incomes over time, or it could mean that the city is inaccessible to low-income residents. Without data on individuals over time, we cannot be sure which scenario is being measured.

Although median income does differ widely between the high-ranked and low-ranked cities in our analysis, a city’s income level does not seal its fate on inclusivity. In fact, 2 cities in the top 20 had lower median family incomes than 6 cities in our bottom 20. Future studies should examine this further by following people over time to further differentiate between inaccessibility for low-income households and reductions in the poverty rates of incumbent residents.

How can we improve our understanding of inclusion in cities?

More data of better quality and greater comparability across geographies and time periods can broaden our understanding of the sources of exclusion in cities and their impacts on communities and can support efforts to track city inclusion more accurately. We hope this research lays the building blocks for further data-driven consideration of inclusion at the city level across the US.

People swing on a ride at the San Diego County Fair, Friday, June 17, 2011, in Del Mar, Calif. The fair runs through July 4. Photo by Gregory Bull/AP.

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