By: John Besl
What’s the relative size of the middle class in Cincinnati, and how does it compare to other large places across the country? A recent study from Brookings employs the 2013 American Community Survey (ACS) to examine the income distribution of households nationwide and in all places with populations of at least 65,000. Going by the national income distribution, many cities retain a sizable middle class, but Cincinnati is not one of them. Among 72 large cities, those with 100,000 households or more, Cincinnati ranked 63rd in the share of households classified as middle class.
Researchers stratified all households in the 2013 ACS by income and divided the distribution into quintiles (fifths) to set the income range for each quintile. The bottom fifth of all households, for instance, had income below $21,433, while income for the top fifth exceeded $106,100. Authors Alan Berube and Alec Friedhoff defined middle class households as those in the middle quintile of the national income distribution, with 2013 income between $41,110 and $65,952. Only 17.6% of households in the city of Cincinnati had incomes in this range, well short of the 20% national benchmark. The chart below presents the complete distribution for Cincinnati along with the principal cities of 11 peer metropolitan areas identified by Agenda 360 and Skyward (formerly Vision 2015). The cities are rank-ordered by the size of the middle quintile (shaded green). The wide variation in income distributions among these cities is striking. Minneapolis and St. Louis, with identical 19.1 shares in the middle quintile, look vastly different with Minneapolis skewed slightly to the high income side and St. Louis skewed strongly to the low end. Austin and Pittsburgh closely approximate the national distribution with roughly 20% of households in the middle quintile, but their overall distributions vary considerably.
Austin, Charlotte, and Denver occupy an advantaged position with more than 20% of their households in the top quintile. At the opposite end of the scale are three challenged cities - St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Cleveland - with extraordinarily high concentrations of households in the lowest quintile. Among the 60 individual city-income segments displayed in the chart (12 cities x 5 income categories), the largest by far belong to Cleveland (43.2), Cincinnati (34.9), and St. Louis (32.9) in the bottom quintile. Correspondingly, this trio is burdened with very low household shares in the top quintile.
Indianapolis, Louisville, and Denver represent special cases in this peer group since each one has adopted a consolidated city-county government structure and may be expected to have more of a suburban component in their populations, at least compared to older urban centers in this grouping such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.
Using a much wider definition of middle class, variation among this peer group of cities is muted somewhat. The chart below displays the proportion of households in each city with income in the three middle quintiles, or middle 60%, of the national income distribution in 2013. On this particular measure of middle class, Austin is a near-perfect reflection of the U.S. Cincinnati and Cleveland, however, trail far behind their central Ohio neighbor, Columbus, and the other peer cities.
Cincinnati lags behind its nearest neighbors – Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville – in middle-class households.
Local redevelopment efforts underway at The Banks and in Over-The-Rhine have sparked some buzz along with hopes for an urban renaissance in Cincinnati, but the city faces multiple challenges and a long road ahead to smooth out its decidedly uneven income distribution.