Since 2000, 95 percent of new households in King County have been either rich or poor. Here’s how census numbers show the income shift for local households.
Is King County Ground Zero for the vanishing middle class?
You might think so after reading this bombshell of a statistic, which was dropped by King County Executive Dow Constantine in a recent speech: Since 2000, 95 percent of new households in King County have been either rich or poor. A mere 5 percent could be considered middle income.
That’s remarkable data, so let’s take a quick look under the hood.
Between 2000 and 2012, King County grew by 85,000 households — what Constantine referred to in his speech as “new households.” Data show that more than 40,000 of these households are low-income, earning less than half the King County median income (or about $35,000 in 2012). Roughly the same number are high-income, with earnings at more than 180 percent of the median (or about $125,000 in 2012).
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That means, of course, that there was barely any growth in the middle-income group — just 3,500 households earning between $35,000 and $125,000.
Speaking to a New York Times reporter, Constantine put a Seattle spin on this redistribution of wealth toward the extremes: “It’s people doing really well, and people making espresso for people who are doing really well.”
But is this countywide trend — rich and poor growing while the middle class shrinks — also happening at the neighborhood level? In order to find out, I zoomed in on data for King County’s nearly 400 census tracts.
Answer: To a large extent, it is.
In more than half of King County census tracts, 95 percent or more of household growth since 2000 has been at the top or the bottom of the income scale. In most of these, middle-income households declined in number. We find these tracts spread throughout the county, but they are most heavily concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods in Seattle and on the Eastside, as well as poorer areas in South King County.
There are some places where middle-income households made gains, particularly in the easternmost parts of King County, and communities around Renton and Auburn. Seattle’s fast-gentrifying areas — including Ballard, most of the downtown neighborhoods, the Central District and parts of Rainier Valley and West Seattle — also saw strong growth in middle-income households.
I found one piece of data puzzling. In the ritzy constellation of Medina, Clyde Hill, Hunts Point and Yarrow Point, 100 percent of the household growth was in the under-$35,000 bracket. How could anyone live there on that income?
At first it seemed there was a simple, two-word answer, which underscored Constantine’s espresso economy notion: au pair.
But there’s another, even more likely two-word explanation: capital gains. It turns out that investment returns — which many of the ultrarich live on, rather than salaries — are excluded from household-income calculations by the Census Bureau.
Explore the data for yourself using our interactive map of King County census tracts. Use the tabs to select from three income brackets — low, middle and high. The map will highlight which census tracts have experienced growth in each income bracket since 2000. Tracts in gray experienced no growth. By clicking on any census tract, a pop-up window will display the underlying data.