(This is part 2 of a two-part post; for background on the Gini coefficient see part 1.)

I previously discussed use of the Gini coefficient as a way to measure income inequality (or equality, as the case may be), and promised to discuss why Howard County is noteworthy in this regard. In brief, Howard County is one of only seven counties in the US (out of 800 counties and other geographic areas) that rank in the top 5% (positions 1-40) for both median household income and income equality (as measured by the Gini coefficient):

Geographic areaIncome rankMedian household incomeEquality rankGini coefficient
Howard County, Maryland3101,672290.379
Calvert County, Maryland695,134260.376
Douglas County CO992,824250.376
Stafford County, Virginia1287,629120.36
Prince William County, Virginia1387,24360.351
Charles County, Maryland2083,41290.353
Scott County, Minnesota3977,678200.369

(By way of comparison, the estimated Gini coefficient for the entire US in 2007 is 0.467, while the estimated US median household income in 2007 is $50,740.)

All of these counties share similar characteristics: They are formerly rural counties, relatively small in population (ranging from roughly 100,000 to 400,000), that are close enough to major cities to benefit from their economic growth but far enough away to exclude urban concentrations of poverty. Except for Douglas County (a suburb of Denver) and Scott County (a suburb of Minneapolis-St Paul), all are located near Washington DC. This points up the role of the Federal government as the economic engine of the region, providing lots of well-paying government and contractor jobs but at the same time not fostering an entrepreneurial culture that might produce more truly wealthy people.1

Although people disagree on the exact causes, there’s general agreement that income inequality has been generally growing over the past few decades, both in the US as a whole and within Maryland specifically. Howard County has been no exception, but even so its current level of inequality, although higher than it was in former years, is apparently no greater than that for the US as a whole in 1967, the year Columbia was founded.2

Howard County’s high median household income and low Gini coefficient could be interpreted as an endorsement of the “Columbia vision”: Columbia and Howard County have achieved 21st century-leading prosperity accompanied by 1960s-level equality. But does the Columbia vision really have anything to with this?

As noted above, while its situation is special in the US as a whole, Howard County is joined in its relative good fortune by several other Maryland and Virginia counties, all standard garden-variety suburbs with no Jim Rouse-like figures present at the creation (as it were). Rouse was certainly an enlightened developer, but first and foremost he was a canny developer, and the fundamental reason for Columbia’s success was Rouse’s foresight in seeing over forty years ago that Howard County’s “location, location, location” positioned it for future prosperity.

Despite that, I think the (lingering) vision of what Columbia should be does influence public attitudes toward income inequality in Howard County, and may help account for some of the special characteristics of the debates over Columbia’s future. For example, I’m sure that many opponents of the WCI Plaza Residences were sincerely concerned about the architectural compatibility of a 22-story tower with Columbia Town Center as it is and (in their minds) should be. However I also think some of the opposition was due to unease as to what it meant for the Columbia vision to have rich people in $2M condos looming over the split-levels, townhouses, and apartments of the surrounding villages.

Having the truly wealthy and their luxurious dwellings sprinkled through western Howard is one thing, having them occupy the symbolic heart of Columbia would be quite another, and I can understand why some older Columbians may have been troubled at the thought of it. I think a similar unease may lie behind the concern expressed that future housing in Columbia Town Center would be monopolized by the “wealthy few.”

In my previous post I mentioned Fairfield County, Connecticut. As Jay Hancock wrote in a blog post a while back, though it has a high median household income Howard County isn’t really rich in the sense that other areas are. On the other hand Fairfield County (or, to be more precise, Greenwich and other towns within Fairfield County) is indeed rich, with a vengeance. (Or at least it was, before the recent financial crisis; I don’t know how it’s doing now.) Home to a number of hedge fund billionaires and other people who made their fortunes in financial services, in 2007 Fairfield County had a mean household income of over $130,000, ranked in the top 5% for median household income ($80,241), and in the bottom 5% for income equality (with a Gini coefficient of 0.534).

Fairfield County is in a sense Howard County as it might have been in an alternative world, if DC were like New York. (In this regard it’s also worth noting that in 2007 New York City surpassed DC in both median household income, $64,217 vs. $54,317, and income inequality, with a Gini coefficient of 0.603 vs. 0.542.) That Howard County isn’t Fairfield County in this world might be seen as an unalloyed blessing: We live in a more fair and equal society, and are more insulated from the vicissitudes of global capitalism.

However it can also be argued that Columbia and Howard County are giving up something in return, and that (within limits) they might benefit from an increased influx of true wealth and the inequality that accompanies it. That’s a subject I hope to address in a future post.

JessieX - 2008-11-17 05:22

Frank, From day one, your perspective and thinking has made me more curious and thoughtful. Thanks again for sharing how you look at things. And thanks for this interesting, albeit a bit nerdy, post. ;-) See you at the BlogTale party Thursday, http://www.socializr.com/event/738244444 ~jessiex

Frank Hecker - 2008-11-18 03:32

Jessie, thanks for stopping by. Sorry for the nerdiness, it’s just that sometimes having the numbers and understanding the concepts is important – otherwise it’s all just opinions!

  1. It’s worth noting that Frederick County, Maryland almost made the list above as well in 2007; it is ranked #43 for median household income, and #22 for income equality. In fact, as a state Maryland has a Gini coefficient well below the US average, as pointed out by Jay Hancock of the Baltimore Sun last year. ↩︎

  2. The US Gini index in 1967 was 0.397 (US Census Bureau Publication P60-235, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2007, Table A-3, pp. 40-41). Due to a change in methodology in the early 1990s, Gini coefficients published by the Census Bureau for the 1960s cannot be directly compared to current Gini coefficients from the same source. However I think it’s reasonable to conclude that income inequality in Howard County today is at least roughly similar to income inequality in the US as a whole in 1967. ↩︎