America’s Most Egalitarian City… Less of a Distinction than It Appears

Egalitarian... but comparing apples with oranges.

Measured by income extremes, Virginia Beach is the most egalitarian large city in the country. Among households in 2012, the average income of the Top 5% was only six times that of the average income for the Bottom 20%. That compares to Atlanta, where the ratio was almost 19 to one, San Francisco, where the ratio was almost 17 to one.

In a recent paper, Brookings Institution scholar Alan Berube calculated the ratio for the 50 largest cities in the United States.

Berube observes that regions with great income disparities can be classified into two groups: cities like San Francisco where there are exceptionally high incomes (lots of wealth creation going on) and cities like Atlanta where there are exceptionally low incomes (little upward mobility).

Virginia Beach would appear to be an example of a city with modest extremes of wealth and poverty. In that sense, one could say it is the most middle class of all the nation’s largest cities. But there’s really not much to brag about here. Only a small portion of the “city” consists of urban core: the old resort area. Norfolk and Portsmouth were the urban centers of the south Hampton Roads region. Demographically, Virginia Beach is a middle-class suburb. The city owes its egalitarian distinction to the fact that Berube, not taking into account Virginia’s unique system of local government, was comparing apples to oranges.

Note: I have totally rewritten this post to correct a major misunderstanding in the original version.

— JAB 

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10 responses to “America’s Most Egalitarian City… Less of a Distinction than It Appears”

  1. I don’t think we will every have an “equal” society in terms of economic circumstances and I do not think we should try to. For most every person – there is an element of self-initiative to better their situation even those that got a crappy education because their school was in a less affluent neighborhood and their parents were unable or unwilling to motivate them that education is a key ingredient of having a better life.

    Many, many people born of less than wonderful circumstances – in this country .. or who can here from other places, has put their nose to the grindstone and became a success even with cards stacked against them. Today, we seem to have more than a few who think they are entitled to “better” just because they exist.

    we cannot totally fix “dumb” … it happens… and some of us are just never going to get it and we don’t owe them anything.

    now how right wing does that sound?

    but at the same time – we ought to recognize the paradox of government jobs for the lucky who are able to take advantage of them and no place is that luck more in play than the State of Va with it’s largess of govt jobs in Northern Va and Hampton Roads and where folks with average educations can get a lifelong career job with a pension and health care benefits.

    If those same folks lived elsewhere – they may not have such “opportunity”.

    but I will keep harping on how education is key to the 21st Century job conundrum.

    As we embrace the internet to automate more and more tasks that range from everything like gate-keepers of information to automation of many jobs that paid humans to do – what a machine can now do…

    those jobs, those kinds of jobs – are going, going, gone.

    and the jobs that are available require a substantially higher education that many get from k-12 schools and even college won’t provide it unless you are capable of mastering the more robust academic subjects …

    Of all the OECD countries – we are the only one who does not “get” this.

    we continue to blithely stumble along thinking that our K-12 schools are equipping kids for the skills they need for 21st century jobs.

    some are so out of touch with the reality that they think ANY college degree will guarantee them a good job – even as we have millions of people with college degrees – not only out of a job – but lack the education and skills to get a job.

    we have more and more people scrambling to get the fewer and fewer jobs that don’t require substantial skills.

    Ships that are built these days are chock full of computer and electronics and embedded software…. the average ship today needs less than half of the crew that they once did.

    so we have folks who want the shipbuilding jobs but more and more want those blue collar jobs while those jobs are getting fewer and fewer – and the electronics jobs – may not even be done in Hampton but in places where there are concentrations of highly skilled people ….

    we’re going to cut back on entitlements but more important – the military is going to have to cut back – on personnel – who are killing their budget.

    The Pentagon is going to replace piloted planes with drones.. they’re going to replace other craft – that travel the seas and under the seas with craft that use less and less people and more and more electronics and sensors..

    We can’t know all the ways this is going to play out but we know two things:

    1. – they will need less and less marginally skilled blue collar in Hampton

    2. – they’re going to need more and more folks skilled in electronics and allied.

    If you as a k-12 student are on a track to become an electronics engineer – you probably have a job in the 21st century.

    if you are, however, on a track without a serious job focus – i.e. jobs that actually exist and have a demand – then you’re probably going to be at risk … and that may well include Hampton .. at some point.

    NoVa will always be there.. it’s like where all the govt CEOs hang out..

    that’s one reasons why you see high dollar homes all over Fairfax and locales and that are involved in that game of income disparity.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Virginia beach? Why do you use aphoto ofbhampton and an airforce f22 based at langely not oceana?

    1. The Hampton Roads MSA include the Peninsula.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Lame response when you talk about Virginia Beach!

    1. I see the source of confusion. Non-Virginians refer to the MSA as “Virginia Beach” — which I normally convert to Hampton Roads to avoid confusion with the City of Virginia Beach…. which is exactly the confusion that occurred here. I have changed “Virginia Beach” to “Hampton Roads.”

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Yesi am a non virginian come here. Choice not heritage or pedigree

  5. I would like to point out that the data in this report pertain only to the city of Virginia Beach and not the region as a whole. The report itself and articles on the report from various sources such as The Atlantic Cities make it clear that this data is for the country’s 50 largest cities not MSAs. The economic homogeneity of Virginia Beach when compared to the other cities on the list is therefore unsurprising, since it is widely known that more suburban localities tend to be much less diverse than more urban ones (the report actually describes this phenomenon). The Hampton Roads region as a whole is actually only average in terms of income disparities. A 2012 report from the Martin Prosperity Institute noted that the income disparities in the Hampton Roads region as measured by the Gini Coefficient were exactly the same as in Russia (0.422), which is hardly an enviable position. The Equality of Opportunity Project also recently identified Hampton Roads as one of the regions with the fewest opportunities for upward mobility (its in the bottom quartile for the odds of reaching the top 20% from the bottom 20%, as is Richmond). Given this information, you may wish to revise your depiction of the region as a middle class utopia.

    1. Thanks, that was a careless oversight on my part. I’ll re-write the post to reflect this.

  6. which sorta begs the question perhaps – as to why in a world of MSAs, we’re doing analysis of “cities” within MSAs especially in terms of income inequality and related concepts.

    Detroit is another good example of selectively choosing a city to make some kind of analytical , political, etc point while ignoring the fact that it’s part of a bigger MSA – Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI – which as an MSA has performed not badly – ranked 14th whereas Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC, not only not characterized as “Hampton” but also 40th and Richmond 44th.

    All of this is related to the internet of things – DATA subcategory where depending on how you want to hold your “analysis” mouth you can portray the sky as BLUE or if you prefer and are so inclined and perhaps have an agenda OR don’t even yourself recognize such distinctions – sound-bite GREEN!

    but there is an important point here I think perhaps.. I would ask.. when we talk about income disparity – would comparing it on an MSA basis show that the MSA is just the aggregate of the cities in the MSA or would there be significant differences in the cities within the MSA themselves?

    would a perspective along those lines – lead to any better understanding on our part as to the subject in general?

    I suspect, given the dialogue already that we may already be thinking that cities within MSAs may have different income disparities – to wit – the one that ABC1234 pointed out and then of course the Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI.

    New York and perhaps Chicago, Richmond ? might be further broke down into wards or boroughs… where “conceivably” one could look at “gross Borough product” and income disparity within the Borough. You could to that with Richmond even…

    DJ and I both have pointed out that some boundaries are essentially arbitrary artifacts… lines drawn by some royal governor, often to give grants of land to favored folks.

    but others – by Geography and political considerations, .. including gerrymandering, boundaries by race , – i.e GOP or Dem “leaning” districts.

    how much of “income disparity” can you, in a given MSA, plot on a boundary basis and how much “income disparity” is truly homogeneous within the MSA itself?

    If you subscribe to the idea that there are “pockets” of much lower wealth in some areas vs “pockets” of higher wealth in other areas – within the same MSA – is it those different “pockets” that essentially make up the disparity gaps?

    If any of this has any merit at all – then perhaps the basic concept of income disparity is a bit too sound-bitish to start with. Easy to note in simply terms but not so simple more in depth and in reality.

  7. DJRippert Avatar


    I am proud of you. You got it. Virginia Beach is a county. Arlington is a city. You just can’t use Virginia’s designations and compare places in Virginia to places outside Virginia.

    However, putting Virginia aside, I wonder how the Ginni coefficient has been changing inside America’s real cities. My guess is that the gentrification happening in many cities is creating greater and greater income and wealth disparities within the cities. Things are getting pretty tense in San Francisco right now over this. There are neighborhoods in DC where long time residents are feeling like they are being invaded and priced out. It seems to me that this is likely to boil over at some point.

    The city of Washington, DC is arguably the most liberal, Democratic Party oriented place in America. Obama has an 80% favorability rating among DC residents. Taxes are sky high. No place spends more per public school student than DC. It is also the place often cited as having the worst income and wealth disparity.

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