Utah has nation's lowest 'income inequality'
Utah relatively homogenous in income levels but big disparities exist among communities.
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More than any other Americans, Utahns live among neighbors whose incomes are similar to their own. The rich live with the rich, and the poor with the poor. But the overall range of Utahns' household incomes is relatively narrow, too, with comparatively few who are exceptionally high- or low-income.

That's according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau looking at "neighborhood income inequality" between 2005 and 2009.

"Over time, income inequality has increased both in Utah and the nation. We [in Utah] are not equal by a long shot, but it is not as bad as in other states," said Pam Perlich, research economist at the University of Utah. "There's not a lot of people here with truly high income, not a lot of poor — but a lot in the middle."

No matter what population level is examined — state, metro area, large place, small place or even census tract — a Utah area came up in the report as the most homogenous by income in the nation, or close to it.

Utah was the most homogenous for household incomes among the 50 states. The Salt Lake metropolitan area ranked No. 1 among metro areas with at least 1 million people.

West Jordan was the most homogenous among the nation's 269 "large places" with at least 100,000 residents. Brigham City ranked No.1 among the nation's 940 "Core Based Statistical Areas." And the Hunter neighborhood of West Valley City ranked No. 3 among all of the nation's 61,358 census tracts.

"The further you drill down toward the neighborhood level, the more homogenous it's going to be. People with common incomes tend to live by each other," said Lecia Langston, an economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

But even at the large state or metropolitan area levels, Utah is still fairly homogenous by income, according to several statistical measures used by the Census Bureau.

Perlich said among reasons for that is Utah has the highest rate of families headed by married couples — and studies show that single women with children often account for many of the people living in poverty nationally.

Langston also noted that Utah has lower percentages of minorities than other states, and minorities nationally have tended to have lower incomes.

Langston also said most of Utah's population is centered along the Wasatch Front, and people there tend to work in similar industries and jobs.

In contrast, she said the county in Utah where incomes are most unequal is Uintah. "That makes sense because you have the income of people in the [high-paying] oil fields, and everybody else — so there tends to be a bigger difference."

Also, Langston said Utah's culture may play a role. "We are known for our work ethic, so we don't have as many people down at the bottom end" of the economy.

Perlich warned that Utah "still has plenty of inequality," even if it has the least among the states.

For example, she noted that West Valley City and West Jordan were mentioned in the report as areas with little inequality within their own boundaries. But the median household income in West Jordan is higher than in West Valley City, $66,455 compared to $51,421.

"So West Valley and West Jordan may have little inequality within their own borders, but there is a big difference between cities," she said.

She noted the study itself also said that higher income people often "choose to live away from lower-income ones, sometime form 'enclaves' with little income variation."

The report notes that a vigorous debate is occurring nationally about how serious widening income inequality is — which has led to the "Occupy Wall Street," "Occupy Utah" and other similar protests complaining that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

"Inequality is not a good thing," Perlich said. "Nationally, the top 20 percent of the population have 80 percent of all the wealth. The bottom 40 percent have less than 1 percent of the wealth. It's the worst it's been since the 1920s."

Langston said that she sees Utah being relatively homogenous on the state level as a good thing. "It may mean that we don't have as many really rich people, but it also means that we don't have a lot on the lower end, either," she said.