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The urban wealth pendulum

Jeffrey Lin, who is an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, recently published the following chart:


I found it in this Washington Post article. And it’s packed full of fascinating information.

The chart compares the socioeconomic status in US cities (y-axis) against “distance from city center” (x-axis) in 1880 and then in recent years (1960 to 2010 census data). The orange circles represent the 1880 data and the red and blue lines represent the recent census data.

What this chart and research tells us is that in 1880, rich people overwhelmingly lived in the center of cities. And as you moved further away from the city center, socioeconomic status fell off pretty precipitously. This makes sense given that, at the time, it was hard to get around and travel long distances.

However, in the post-war years, the exact opposite became true. We began driving and wealth decentralized. This should surprise no one. 

But what’s interesting is how this appears to be reversing. In 2010 (the red line), there’s a sharp increase in socioeconomic status for people living basically right in the center of cities. And for the 30 – 60 km range, there has been a decrease in socioeconomic status essentially from the 1960s onwards. 

The important takeaway here – which is spelled out in the Washington Post article – is that the neighborhoods which appear to be in high demand today are also in very short supply:

“We have 80 years of essentially zero production of neighborhoods with these qualities,” Grant says. “We’ve spent the last 80 years building car-oriented suburbs. Then when the elites decide they want to go back into the city, there’s not enough city to go around.”

This is one reason why supply matters.

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