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FYI Guy

Seattle Times news librarian Gene Balk crunches the numbers

October 6, 2014 at 6:33 PM

As Seattle incomes soar, gap grows between rich and poor

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

It seems like an inevitable topic of conversations these days: When did Seattle become a city for rich people?

We all know about the skyrocketing housing costs that are pricing some folks out of Seattle. But you’ve probably also noticed how all those new apartment buildings — the ones where studios rent for $1,600 — fill up with tenants as soon as the paint is dry. Or whenever a cute Craftsman cottage comes on the market, a frenzied bidding war ensues.

Signs of affluence are everywhere in Seattle — from the upscale restaurants and $15-a-drink craft-cocktail bars that are packed on any given night, to the lines at Whole Foods that keep getting longer.

New data from the Census Bureau confirm what you already sensed: Seattle is getting wealthier, and in a hurry.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Last year, the median income for Seattle households climbed to $70,000 — a $5,300 jump in just one year. Among the 50 largest cities in the U.S., only fast-gentrifying Oakland, Calif., saw a bigger increase.

Seattle leapfrogged Washington, D.C., to rank among the top-three high-income cities, and now stands just behind San Jose and San Francisco, in that order.

Things are very different here than in most of the country. Nationally, income stalled at about $52,000, right where it was in 2012.

But while Seattle’s prosperity is remarkable, the census data also reveal that the city’s rising tide didn’t lift all boats. You might say it only lifted the yachts.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

For the 20 percent of city households at the top of the income ladder, things couldn’t be better. Their earnings averaged $248,000 in 2013 — a hefty $15,000 jump from 2012. But for the 20 percent of households at the bottom, incomes averaged just $13,000, unchanged from the previous year.

You read that right: The $15,000 increase for the city’s highest earners exceeded the entire average income for the poorest Seattleites.

And because wages rose at the top but flatlined at the bottom, the gap between the two groups grew. The wealthiest fifth of Seattle households earned 19 times more than the poorest fifth in 2013 — that’s up from 18 times more the previous year.

We’re not alone: Of the 50 largest U.S. cities, Seattle was one of 30 where the wealth gap widened last year.

And to be sure, Seattle’s case is not the most extreme. That distinction belongs to Atlanta, where the richest households earned 37 times more than the poorest.

Earlier this year, Seattle passed legislation to gradually increase the minimum wage. And last month, Mayor Ed Murray announced the formation of a new committee to address the housing affordability crisis.

Will these efforts be enough? We’ll keep our eye on new data as it’s released, so stay tuned.

The Eastside isn’t immune to the issue of income inequality — even if the impression exists that everyone there is wealthy. In Bellevue, the top 20 percent of households made 14 times more than the poorest in 2013. Mayor Claudia Balducci told the Seattle Times she thinks Bellevue residents would be receptive to a discussion about income inequality and fair pay, although that discussion has not yet taken place.

Comments | More in Demographics | Topics: Census, income, income inequality

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