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Only one Bay Area county keeps income inequality at bay

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The past 25 years have transformed the economic landscape of the Bay, except for Solano County

A street in downtown Fairfield, seat of Solano County Ryanloney

Every few months another raft of research comes along to confirm the already conventional wisdom that the divide between rich and poor in the Bay Area is getting wider.

But the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington DC-based research non-profit, put things in particularly stark relief with a series of maps charting income inequality in nearly every county in America since 1989.

Back in ’89, almost every Bay Area county fell into the broad category of “low poverty, low inequality”—which, generally speaking, is the most preferable of the four standards that PRB sorts each locale into.

PRB here combines federal guidelines for poverty with the Gini Index, an equation that measures the distribution of income across a population zone, to find the areas where spikes in both coincide.

At the end of the ’80s, only Marin qualified as “high inequality” area near the bay. Within only 10 years, nearly the region joined that club, San Francisco included. And by 2014, it was every county except one.

On the PRB scale, San Francisco and almost all of its neighbors now qualify as “high inequality, low poverty” zones.

Jack Snell
The Vaca Mountains.

That’s generally preferable to being a high poverty/high inequality zone. (Note that virtually all of California now qualifies as such.) But it’s still a sobering transformation.

PRB notes that this kind of split usually represents affluent communities where the middle class is taking hits at the same time the wealthy are enjoying huge dividends.

Which, yes, sounds about right.

The only county to maintain its economic equilibrium: Solano. While the divide everywhere else has grown year wider in and year out, the demographics north of Contra Costa seem to have changed little over 25 years.

The average Solano County resident makes nearly $67,000/year, according to census projections. The national average is somewhere around $52,000. San Francisco’s is probably upwards of $84,000.

Solano’s estimated poverty rate is probably around 12 percent, though the census warns that it’s hard to compare rates in smaller population areas to larger ones.

Although whenever anyone does, Solano is usually the lowest in the bay. The national average is 14 to 15 percent.

Note that keeping inequality at arm’s length, while rather remarkable in this day and age, doesn’t always indicate general prosperity.

For example, Solano County was also one of the only places in the Bay Area to see its household income decline over the past two years, by up to 2.7 percent. The other was Napa.

[Correction: A previous version of this story opened with the phrase “the rich are getting rich and the poor are getting poorer. But technically the lowest income brackets in SF have risen recently, even as income inequality widens.]