At her inauguration to the Seattle City Council, Kshama Sawant spoke of a divided Seattle — a city of “glittering fortunes” for corporations and the wealthy, but also a city in which the lives of the working poor and unemployed grow increasingly difficult.
Sawant’s speech echoed the “tale of two cities” campaign theme of another newly-elected progressive politician — New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.
While the magnitude of income inequality in New York — and especially Manhattan — is notoriously bad, you don’t hear nearly as much about it in Seattle. So how do we compare?
According to the most recent census data, the top fifth of Seattle households earn, on average, 18 times more than the bottom fifth. That is a wide income gap, to be sure, but it only ranks Seattle in the middle of the pack among major U.S. cities. By contrast, in Manhattan the top fifth make 40 times that of the bottom fifth.
What narrows the income gap here somewhat is that Seattle’s lowest tier earns more on average compared to most other big cities. In fact, the bottom 20 percent here make more than the same group in New York. This is most likely the result of our state minimum wage, the nation’s highest at $9.32 (the federal minimum wage is currently $7.25).
Even so, Seattle’s bottom fifth, which totals roughly 58,000 households, only earns $13,000 a year on average. Imagine trying to scrape by in Seattle on that income.
Where Seattle stands out most is in the startling degree of affluence at the highest stratum of earners. The top 5 percent of Seattle households have an average income of $423,000. Among the nation’s 50 most-populous cities, that ranks Seattle’s “five percenters” as the fifth most affluent, just one rung below New York. Holding down the top three spots, in descending order, are Washington, D.C., Atlanta and San Francisco.
Keep in mind, of these five cities with ultra-high-earners at the top, Seattle is the only one where residents are not subject to a state or local income tax — so the five percenters here get to keep even more of their hefty paychecks.
This is a fact that probably won’t escape the attention of our newest city council member.