Income Inequality Is Higher In Democratic Districts Than Republican Ones

Miami Beach Photograph by Steve Dunwell/Getty Images

The folks at Bloomberg Rankings, drawing on U.S. Census data, have measured the level of inequality—the Gini coefficient—in each of the 435 U.S. congressional districts. It’s a fascinating list (and a map) that reveals all sorts of interesting things. Here’s one: 32 of the 35 districts in which inequality is greatest are represented by Democrats (Republicans represent two; the other is vacant).

These districts are spread across the country, from the Northeast to the Southeast, to the West Coast, and even the Midwest. Why do Democrats dominate them? Because almost every one of these 35 districts lies in an urban center dominated by two groups of people living in close proximity to each other: highly educated, highly paid whites and poor blacks and Latinos. These groups are essentially the Democratic Party’s base.

If you’re curious about how two Republican lawmakers showed up on this list, each of their districts turns out to represent a slight twist on this same urban formula. Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s district (the state’s 27th) includes part of Miami and extends along the coast to the south. It encompasses plenty of Miami Beach ritz and a poor minority population that lives nearby—but the latter are mostly Cuban Americans who, unlike members of other minority communities, reliably vote Republican:

Cook Political Report

The other Republican district is Texas Representative John Culberson’s (the state’s 7th), which is predominantly composed of the wealthy suburbs northwest of Houston. George H.W. Bush once represented this district. The extreme inequality stems from a Republican gerrymander in 2010, designed to help the party elsewhere, that added many poor Latinos to Culberson’s district. “Republicans threw in the Gulfton neighborhood of Houston, which has one of the highest concentrations of undocumented immigrants in the country,” says David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. These new, poor residents of the 7th district don’t threaten Culberson’s seat because few of them vote. Wasserman says the 2010 census counted 106,000 residents—yet fewer than 6,000 voted in 2008. “Republicans were smart to include these nonvoting Latinos in Culberson’s district, because in so doing they were able to pack more higher-turnout Democratic areas into other districts without marginalizing Culberson’s hold on TX-07.”

See for yourself. Here’s Culberson’s district before it was gerrymandered:

Cook Political Report

And after:

Cook Political Report

These data highlight an interesting dilemma for Democrats. Clearly, extreme inequality correlates strongly with Democratic political representation. As the income inequality grows, that will pose a threat to Republicans—and it’s why President Obama and the Democrats are talking so much about it. But as my Bloomberg News colleague Michael C. Bender notes today, this is unlikely to yield near-term gains for Democrats. Of the 100 districts with the highest levels of inequality, not one held by a Republican is considered to be in play this November.

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