Part 5. Are the nation’s richest suburbs really its most economically inclusive cities?

A statistical methodology that repeatedly flags high income suburbs as “inclusive” probably isn’t actually measuring inclusiveness.

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a five-part series examining a recent Urban Institute report that attempts to measure and rank the inclusiveness of U.S. cities. Be sure to read Part I, here, for a description of that report, and an overview of the issues it raises).

The Urban Institute’s report “Measuring Inclusion” tries to tease out the relationship between local economic performance and racial and economic inclusion. The report ranks the nation’s 274 largest cities based on measures of inclusion and economic growth, and flags several cities as “most inclusive.”  Upon closer inspection, though, the highest scoring cities turn out to be some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs, places that are arguably, exclusive, rather than inclusive. That suggests that there’s either something wrong with our understanding of which kind of places are actually “inclusive,” or something wrong with the Urban Institute’s ranking system. We think its the latter.

A key claim of the Urban Institute report is that more inclusive cities are more prosperous. Here’s CityLab’s synopsis of the report’s findings:

One of their top-line findings: The ten cities faring the best on the inclusion metrics in 2013 were also flourishing economically. “There is a strong relationship between the economic health of a city and a city’s ability to support inclusion for its residents,” the authors write in the report.

What are these most economically inclusive places?  If you look at the Urban Institute report, there’s a clear answer: wealthy suburban enclaves.  Here are the cities that rank 1 through 10 on the list of the most inclusive cities in the United States. You’ll find the nation’s highest income city (Naperville Illinois) on the list, along with other recognizable upper-end suburbs like Torrance, California, Bellevue, Washington, and Overland Park Kansas.  None of the top ten “inclusive” cities, per Urban Institute, is the principal city of a metropolitan statistical area. Livonia is a suburb of Detroit, Fremont, a suburb of San Francisco, Bellevue a suburb of Seattle, Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, and so on.


On its face, it seems difficult to think of these places as “inclusive.”  In fact, a pretty good case could be made that they’re some of the most exclusive large cities in the US.  All but two of the ten rank among the top 20 in median family incomes. Plus, the price of living in these neighborhoods–which we’ve gleaned from the latest Census estimates of median home value–is extremely high, six of the ten “most inclusive” cities have a median home value of more than $600,000. Unsurprisingly, very few “working poor” people can afford to live in these places.

Urban Institute’s methodology, which ranks economic inclusion based on city-level economic segregation (do high income and low income city residents live in different neighborhoods), on median income, on the share of the working poor, the number of rent-burdened households, and the share of 16-19 year olds who are neither employer nor in school, are all skewed to detect high income households.These places all rank high on these measures, not because they are inclusive, but because they’re exclusive: the combination of single family zoning and expensive home prices and few apartments mean that few low income people can afford to live there. That’s why the fraction of the working poor population in these cities is so small.

The residents of these enclaves don’t enjoy success because they live in these cities, they live in these cities because they are economically successful. The combination of high housing prices and local land use restrictions means that the working poor simply don’t have the option to live in these cities. They score well on the Urban Institute Index not because they are economically inclusive, but because they are economically exclusive.