Income, language, education: Puget Sound region is a rich mix

In important ways, data show, this metropolitan area is home for people from very diverse backgrounds.

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The historic Richard A. Ballinger house is near Lake Washington in Southeast Seattle, where incomes of affluent neighborhoods contrast with those in some of the nearby areas.

In important ways, data show, this metropolitan area is home for people from very diverse backgrounds.

When it comes to income inequality around the Puget Sound region, there is one spot that stands out from all the rest: Seattle. Most of the city has relatively wide variances in income among residents.

While we have good information from the regular Census on population, race and ethnicity, and the kinds of households in the Puget Sound region, a separate Census effort at gathering data gives us fairly solid information on income gaps, educational attainment, and a host of other important characteristics for understanding local communities. Valuable data on income, poverty, education, and many other topics are available only from the American Community Survey, a running sample in place of the abandoned Census “long form.”

Since the ACS sample is much too small for realistic estimates at a detailed level of geography, I report here on a few variables for 2010 for what are called PUMA, or Public Use Microdata Areas, which average around 100,000 in population, and permit reasonably reliable estimates. “Reasonable” does not mean good, so caution should be used in assessing smaller differences.

Here are some key findings.

Income, inequality, and poverty are closely related. Median income varies more than two-fold from $46,000 in Highline (Burien and nearby) and $47,000 in Tacoma and Everett to $104,000 in Issaquah-Sammamish (which includes Mercer Island), $91,000 in east King County, and $90,000 in Kirkland-Remond. The more typical intermediate areas are those from $64,000 to $71,000, such as Northwest Seattle, Puyallup, Shoreline and Southeast Snohomish County. (Yakima has the lowest median income in the state.)

Inequality is not very correlated with income. The measure here is a simple one of the skew in the distribution of incomes, low if more households have similar incomes, high if there are many very poor and very rich households. The statistic is the difference between the median income (half households are poorer, half richer) and the mean income (all income divided by the number of households), divided by the median. It is simply the percentage by which the mean exceeds the median.  The typical US value is about .3. Despite obvious huge differences in income, the Seattle area as a whole is below the U.S. average in inequality, because of the relative strength here of middle classes (thank Boeing and other solid employers).

Most of the city of Seattle has high inequality, and the highest by far is southeast Seattle (think of the amazing difference between near Lake Washington versus nearby inland neighborhoods), followed by Northeast, Central, and Southwest Seattle in the city, then Highline, Lakewood, and Bellevue. The lowest rate of inequality, in South Central Snohomish County (Mill Creek-Bothell) is really low, as are Puyallup, Kent, and Parkland, because there is less variation in income in these suburban areas.

Shares of persons in poverty vary from a low 3 percent in the highest income area, Isssaquah-Sammamish and  4 percent in South Central Snohomish to a high of 23 percent in Highline, and 21 percent in Kent. These are also the highest in poverty of children. (The highest in the state is for Yakima County, excluding the city.) There is a simple and high correlation of median income and poverty shares.  Most of Seattle has fairly high shares of persons and children in poverty, while most of the Eastside (except Renton) and suburban and exurban King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have fairly low levels. As with a lower income, south Kitsap has higher poverty than north Kitsap.

Unemployment has a slightly different distribution. It is more correlated with educational attainment than with income or poverty, relatively high in Everett, Highline, Kent, and Puyallup but low in north and central Seattle, eastside King county, beyond Renton, and in outer Pierce. The lowest unemployment is in richest Issaquah-Sammamish, then Bellevue; and the highest in Everett.

Educational attainment should show no surprises, super high in most of Seattle, in Bellevue, Kirkland-Redmond, and, yes, it is highest in the richest area, Issaquah-Sammamish. Conversely it is lowest in east suburban Pierce, Highline, south Kitsap, and northeast Snohomish.  Everett, Tacoma, Renton and Kent are intermediate. The lowest in the state is for Yakima county, beyond the city.

Persons with a disability show a yet different distribution, highest in South Kitsap, followed by north Snohomish and Highline, and lowest in Bellevue, north Seattle, south central Snohomish and let again, lowest in the richest area, Issaquah-Sammamish (perhaps this implies that disabled persons are poorer and cannot afford higher cost areas?). The highest share is for the Olympic peninsula (21 percent).

Another interesting variable is for the use of a language other than English in the home. This, of course, reflects the distribution of the foreign born, and is decidedly not correlated with income or with education, since the foreign born in the region have a kind of “dual” distribution: less educated and affluent households prevalent in south Seattle, Highline, Renton and Kent, and Everett, more affluent households in the high-tech areas of Bellevue and Kirkland-Redmond. Bellevue has the highest share, an amazing 38 percent; the outer exurban and rural areas of all the counties the lowest.

These variables well attest to the amazing diversity within the metropolis.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Morrill

Dick Morrill is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert in urban demography.