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Unequal ZIP Codes

The gap between richest and poorest communities grows, a reality plain to see in America's heartland.

Blogging Our Great Divide
February 25, 2016

by Chuck Collins

Last April, on an “America-roots-music” family road trip, we took a rambling drive out of Memphis and down Highway 61 into the Mississippi Delta. Late in the afternoon we crossed the Mississippi River and wandered into the once thriving Delta town of Helena, Arkansas. Helena is home to the famous blues broadcast, King Biscuit Time, a daily program running continuously since 1941.

Helena was one of the most devastated Main Streets I’d seen in a decade, and I’ve seen a lot. Block after block of empty store fronts, downtown Helena would be a good set for a movie about the neutron bomb. One of my kids astutely asked, “Are we still in America?”

There has been excellent research focused on growing inequality within major metropolitan areas. A new study, by the Economic Innovation Group, examines how the 2008 economic meltdown has accelerated disparities between communities and ZIP codes. The most prosperous communities have gotten richer while distressed communities, some just a mile from rich ZIP codes, have deteriorated.

According to the EIG study, Helena, Arkansas rates among the most blighted on their interactive map and Distressed Community Index.

The study’s authors note that the Distressed Community Index, provides a multifaceted look at the circumstances underlying the prevailing economic anxiety for many Americans. While more Americans live in communities that have recovered from the Great Recession, there are large swathes of the country that continue to be plagued by disproportionate poverty and joblessness. The DCI reveals that more than 50 million Americans live in economically distressed communities.

Many distressed communities are in the South and the former rust belt states of the northern mid-west. While many of these communities were distressed prior to the Great Recession, they have been further left behind since 2009.

“The most prosperous areas have enjoyed rocket-shiplike growth,” EIG researcher John Lettieri told The New York Times. “There you are very unlikely to run into someone without a high school diploma, a person living below the poverty line or a vacant home…They are enjoying a boom that camouflages what’s going on at the bottom.”

We know that extreme inequalities create parallel universes of rich and distressed. This gap leads to a breakdown in the social solidarity required to build political support for policies that reduce inequality.

I wonder how the 50 million people in these distressed communities are voting. I suspect these are the ZIP codes that are heavily voting against establishment candidates. Stay tuned for some additional research on this topic.

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he coordinates the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. His new TEDx talk, taped in October 2015 at TEDx Jamaica Plain, is now available. 

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