A new map ranks inequality in the US and reminds me of the contrasts I grew up witnessing firsthand.
So I recently learned that I’m from the most unequal state in the country. And, in all honesty, I’m not surprised.
Last week my co-worker Nick Galasso tweeted a new map, above, from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The map ranks inequality in US states based on the ratio between the average incomes of the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent in each state. Connecticut, my home state, has the country’s highest ratio: 51.0, just topping New York’s 48.4.
So what does that mean? According to the EPI’s Mark Price and Estelle Sommeiller, “In both Connecticut and New York, the average incomes of the top 1 percent were more than 48 times those of the bottom 99 percent, reflecting the role that financial sector salaries in the New York metropolitan area play in inequality in the United States.”
Depressing, right? But the truth is that growing up in Connecticut taught me about income inequality long before I came to work at Oxfam, traveled to a developing country, or realized the global scope of the problem.
Why? Because Connecticut is a very small state, so nothing is actually far from anything else. Even though I grew up in a middle-class suburban town, I had a close-up view of cities like Waterbury, where my grandparents raised my father and his siblings: a former manufacturing center that by the 1990s was full of crumbling brown-brick factories and shuttered storefronts. And Bridgeport, one of the state’s largest and poorest cities, known primarily as a dangerous place from which suburban types might never return.
Then, as a teenager in a summer arts program, I met kids from a totally different Connecticut: affluent towns like Weston and Darien, where sprawling mansions hid behind thick stone walls, high-school students drove brand-new sports cars, and Wall Street was just a short train ride away.
What bothered me, I remember, was the proximity of these parallel worlds. Bridgeport and Weston are only a few miles apart—just a couple of highway exits separate them. How was it possible, I remember thinking, for the state’s wealthiest towns and its poorest to be so close to one another? How was that right?
Today, things aren’t so different. The Bridgeport metro area was named the most unequal in the US in 2010, and Bridgeport itself has an estimated median household income of $39,355. Meanwhile, Weston has an estimated household median income of $179,504, making it one of the 100 richest cities in America.
Connecticut isn’t unique. You can see these contrasts throughout the US, where issues like an inadequate federal minimum wage are making life harder for working families in many states. Nor are we the only country with this problem. Oxfam recently made headlines with the finding that, by 2016, the top 1 percent on Earth will be richer than the rest of the world combined.
Since leaving Connecticut, I’ve seen inequality in even starker forms. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, there’s a five-star luxury hotel across the street from a slum where people lack running water. In Lima, Peru, it was hard to reconcile the boutiques and cafés of the seaside Miraflores neighborhood with my visit to Nueva Rinconada, a bleak settlement of makeshift shelters on the bare hills of a former pig farm.
Intellectually, we all know that wealth and poverty co-exist in our world. Maybe you’ve even experienced both in your lifetime.
But there’s something about seeing the two side by side—in Connecticut or anywhere—that really brings home the unfairness of it all. A few people are getting richer, many people are getting poorer. And these people live in the same state, in the same city, or even on the same block.
It begs the same question I asked myself all those years ago: How is this right?