Tag Archives: income

Maps and Income: More on Why Provo Feels Less Vibrant

I recently discovered an incredible website that shows you the income levels of different neighborhoods. Called “Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks,” the website uses a heat map overlaid on a Google map and in this case visually represents the income disparity issues I mentioned in this post — i.e. Provo is poorer than the cities to which it is most often compared.

Here’s what Provo looks like:

The city is red because it's on the lowest end of the spectrum.

The city is red because it’s on the lowest end of the spectrum.

Hopefully this image helps disabuse people of the idea that Provo’s low income stats are the result of students or other unique factors. As the map shows, lower-than-average incomes are common throughout the city.

By way of comparison, here’s Boulder, Colorado:

Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder clearly has it’s own area with a high concentration of lower income earners, but its map also includes bigger swaths of more colors. Tellingly, the peripheries are darker, indicating higher incomes. As I argued throughout the series on income and poverty, this is one the biggest differences between Provo and Boulder and is a major reason why the Colorado city may seem more vibrant.

And just for fun, here’s Orem:

Orem, Utah.

Orem, Utah.

Obviously the physical makeup of these cities influences income distribution; Orem is more uniformly filled with single family homes so there are fewer places for low income people to live there. And long term Provo’s more diverse housing and demographics will surely be an asset.

But based on this map Orem has a lot going for it; there’s simply more money there.

No one map or statistic (or blog post) paints a full picture of how income shapes a city’s physical and economic environment. But as I’ve argued before, it will be difficult or nearly impossible for Provo to feel more like Boulder or Ann Arbor when it’s poorer.

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Filed under Development, economics

One Way to Increase Incomes

I’ve written in the past that Provo has a low median income compared to similar cities, as well as a high poverty rate. I’m not an economist, so these problems seem like the hardest, if most important, to fix.

Yesterday however, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias tackled this issue, framing it in terms of scarcity:

[…] if we’re wondering about the jobs of the future and whether the typical person in 2052 will be able to afford a visit to the doctor this turns out to be basically a question about how many doctors there will be, not what kinds of jobs people have. Insofar as doctors are scarce, lots of people won’t get to see the doctor. By contrast, if doctors are plentiful then a decent society shouldn’t have a difficult time organizing things so that people can see the doctor. […] It used to be that doctors made house calls, but they’re too scarce now for any reasonable person to pay for that.

In other words, if there are a lot of doctors they become cheaper. And if something is cheaper, wages don’t need to be as high to afford it.

Income in a city goes up when people earn more, as well as when things begin to cost less.

Yglesias goes on to mention that technological advances — a computer that can do the work of a doctor, for example — could make medical care less scarce and cause a de facto raise for everyone.

So what does this mean for cities with comparatively low median incomes?

Most obviously it provides a way to “increase” salaries without directly tackling wages. But Yglesias also connects this idea to housing:

By the same token relaxing anti-density regulations would not only increase numerator wages by improving productivity and agglomeration, it would increase wages on the denominator side by reducing the cost of housing in desirable locations.

Yglesias is saying in that quote that increasing housing density would do two things: increase actual wages (the “numerator”), and allow people to save money on housing by making it more common and affordable (the “denominator”).

Fixing anti-density issues is a recurring theme on this blog, but Yglesias’ post is great because it directly connects that agenda with the biggest problem in a city like Provo. It just remains to be seen if city governments — in Provo and elsewhere — will force themselves to buck the trend and do what is obviously most beneficial.

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Filed under Development, economics

Provo: The Poorest City in Its Class

In an effort to better understand why Provo differs from other cities of comparable size and composition, I recently combed through some census data. As it turns out, the government provides a handy QuickFacts page for every city in the U.S.

My goal in looking at this data was to understand why Provo doesn’t have as thriving a downtown, for example, as other cities like Boulder, Colorado. Boulder and a handful of other cities often come up in conversations about how to improve Provo, and there seems to be a sense that if Provo could just feel more like Boulder it would be similarly successful.

I compared Provo to four other cities: Boulder; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Ogden, Utah. All of these cities have colleges, comparable population sizes, and generally anchor medium-sized metros orbiting larger cities. Moreover, I included Ogden due to its proximity to Provo and its relationship to Salt Lake City, and Chattanooga because it’s one of the few cities of its size that consistently pops up in urban-oriented news.

How does Provo stack up against other cities? The points on this map indicate Provo, Boulder, Chattanooga, Ann Arbor, and Ogden, respectively.

What I found wasn’t encouraging. First, with 115,321 people, Provo is the second largest of the five cities and closest in size to Ann Arbor.

So far so good.

But when the median incomes for these cities are compared, Provo gets into trouble:

The graph above — where blue represents city income levels and red represents state income — reveals that Provo has the second lowest median income of all five cities. It just barely beat Chattanooga, and is even lower than Ogden. Here’s the data from both of the graphs, in case you want to see exact figures (click to enlarge):

The problem here isn’t just low income. As the second graph shows, the median income in Provo is also lowest of all five cities relative to its state. In other words the disparity between incomes in Provo and the surrounding community is larger than in any of these five cities.

Or, put another way, Provo is the poorest of all five cities. Only Chattanoogans may make slightly less, but that’s more characteristic of their state and, presumably, the lower state income levels indicate a lower cost of living.

It’s also worth pointing out just how much richer Boulder in particular is than Provo. The median income in Boulder is $13,887 higher than in Provo, and it’s much closer to the state median income.

Given these figures, it’s no wonder Provo struggles. People in Provo have thousands of dollars less to spend, meaning there simply isn’t as much wealth to support a vibrant retail sector, the arts, or entertainment, for example. Lower income also means less tax revenue, among other things, which translates into less money for the government to spend on various projects.

Frankly, it’s a wonder Provo has managed to compete at all given its comparably limited resources. I also have to admit I was surprised by these results; I knew that the median income in Provo would be lower than it is in Boulder or Ann Arbor, but I didn’t expect such a significant disparity, nor did I expect Ogden to be better off.

I’m not an economist — and I don’t want to oversimplify this data — but Provo’s relatively low median income seems like one of the biggest obstacles to downtown revitalization, neighborhood gentrification, and generally improving quality of life. In the end, none of those things are going to happen if people in Provo don’t have the money to support them.

And yet far as I can remember I’ve also never heard any discussion regarding this issue. Ever. Why is that? Though it may be a bit wonkish, this is extremely important because it directly impacts Provo’s ability to improve. Ultimately, wanting the city to improve and sprucing it up here and there is nice, but if Provo remains the poorest city in its class it’ll never be the most vibrant, lively, or successful.

Check back in the coming days for follow-up posts on how Provo’s home values, poverty levels, business environment, etc. compare to these five cities.

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Filed under economics