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Tulsa ranks 18th in income inequality, study says

Tulsa ranks 18th in income inequality, study says

A new study on income inequality puts the city in the top 20 nationwide.

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Tulsa ranks No. 18 on a new list of the 50 U.S. cities with the biggest income inequality between poorer and richer residents.

The Brookings Institution study shows that the highest-income households in Tulsa earn 10.6 times what the lowest-paid families take in. That gap earned the city its top 20 ranking.

Oklahoma City, in contrast, had a radio of 8.5 from richer to poorer to rank No. 41.

Alan Berube, the Brookings researcher who wrote the report, said Tulsa's energy-heavy mix of jobs likely was a factor in its rating.

"The oil and gas industry tends to create a lot of good-paying jobs," he said in a telephone interview.

Many energy companies also grew over the period and were not heavily affected by the recession.

Oklahoma City has significant energy employment as well, but also has more government jobs, which have not fared as well in recent years, Berube said.

According to Berube's numbers, Tulsa's poorest (20th percentile) households make an average of $17,359, while the best-paid (95th percentile) took home $183,407.

From 2007-2012, the bottom rung of Tulsa's population saw income rise $38 per household, while the top enjoyed a $4,127 increase.

Although a $38 bump in income may not sound like much, Berube said, Tulsa was one of only three cities where the poorest saw an increase during the period. The others were Denver, with a $1,000 rise, and El Paso, $1,530.

"I think Tulsa weathered the recession better than many other parts of the country did," Berube said.

Most cities suffered income drops at both the low and high ends, he said.

For example, Atlanta, which ranked No. 1 for the most wage inequity, had losses of $4,036 and $16,813, respectively. The ratio of richer to poorer was high at 18.8.

In contrast, the top 50's average gap was 10.8. For the country as a whole, the ratio was 9.1

"This indicates Tulsa is an average American big city, as far as income inequality is concerned," Berube said.

The higher level of inequality in large cities reflects that, compared to national averages, big-city rich households are somewhat richer ($196,000 versus $192,000), and big-city poor households are somewhat poorer ($18,100 versus $21,000).

Berube undertook his study partially in response to greater national discussion of the issue in recent months, including intense debate on changes in the minimum wage law.

One of his conclusions, he said, is that "cities need both economic mobility and income diversity."

The ability to move up to better-paying jobs can be a sign of inclusion and economic strength, while income diversity is important, too.

"You will always need lower-paid workers for certain jobs," Berube said.

The problem in some large cities such as Seattle, the researcher said, is that they have become too expensive for low-wage individuals. As a result, many of those workers live in suburbs and commute to their jobs.

The Brookings ranking indicates poverty still is a problem throughout the U.S., Berube said, including Tulsa.

"It's important for mayors and other leaders to keep addressing poverty with better education and workforce development programs," he said.

Mark Snead, an economist with Oklahoma City-based RegionTrack, said it was difficult for him to get much from the study.

"I'm not sure about the household income numbers they used," Snead said. "You could pick different percentiles to compare, say 20 and 90 or even 20 and 80, and get different results."

Still, Tulsa's across-the-board growth during a period that also included the Great Recession was notable, the economist said.

"If you believe the data, the lower end and the upper end both did well in Tulsa."

The Tulsa Regional Chamber in recent years also has targeted higher-paying jobs in a program called Tulsa's Future. The effort seeks to attract outside companies and help existing businesses create jobs paying $50,000 or more annually.

In 2013, Tulsa's Future announced 5,998 positions, with 2,484 of those meeting or exceeding the target salary. The overall jobs total was up 2,000 from 2012.

"Hopefully, as we continue that success, the wage gap will decline in Tulsa," said Justin McLaughlin, senior vice president of economic development at the Tulsa Regional Chamber.

The TRC, he said, also is not ignoring the lower end of the job spectrum.

"Where appropriate, we do work on creating jobs paying less than $50,000," McLaughlin said. "We feel it is important to have a good range of jobs that matches the skills sets of people here."

John Stancavage 918-581-8314

Income inequality in America's largest cities

City 20th percentile income 95th percentile income ratio
1. Atlanta $14,850 $297,827 18.8
2. San Francisco $21,313 $353,576 16.6
3. Miami, Fla. $10,438 $164,013 15.7
4. Boston $14,604 $223,838 15.3
5. Washington, D.C. $21,782 $290,637 13.3
18. Tulsa $17,359 $183,407 10.6
41. Oklahoma City $18,835 $160,125 8.5

Source: Brookings Institution


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