Readers raised very good questions on our Facebook page about median as opposed to mean income after reading Adam Pagnucco’s conversation sparking post on Montgomery’s most and least affluent zip codes.
As the above table shows, they were right to suspect that wealthy households skew average income higher than the median, especially in the seven high-income zip codes where the median is 71% of the mean as opposed to 79% in low-income zip codes. The difference in median income levels between the high and low income zip codes is also one-third smaller than for the mean.
Middle-class has always been very elastically defined in America. Keeping that in mind, it nevertheless remains accurate to say that the data project a picture of a largely middle-class jurisdiction. The data lower for income zip codes–called lower and not low for good reason here–paint a portrait of areas that are mainly lower-middle to middle class.
The high-income zip codes are predominantly upper-middle class with good chunks of more middle class and more affluent people–and some very affluent people who drive up the mean income. The median income statistics show the danger in relying solely on mean income as an indicator of how people live. While unquestionably home to an unusual number of very well-off to extremely wealthy people, upper-middle class better describes the income of most households in this expensive area.
The poverty statistics provide a good indicator of people who struggle greatly. One should assume their share is higher since many people who live above the poverty level also have real difficulties making basic ends meet. These show that a significant minority in the lower-income zip codes are poor, despite their clear middle-class character. Poverty is as minimal as just about anywhere in America in the higher-income zip codes.
In short, while there are real and large differences between these groups of zip codes, which after all were selected by Adam precisely to highlight these real differences, Montgomery County is dominated by varying types of middle-class people even in these areas. Adam mentioned rightly that people are aware of the differences. I’d add that they are also aware of the basic similarities. This matters a lot because middle-class values and problems provide a common reference point, even though the higher-income zip codes obviously have more resources to meet challenges and people are aware of these differences.
As a result, our politics tends to be oriented around a common set of goals and problems related to the quality of education, safe neighborhoods, transportation and so forth that resonate to broad majorities just about everywhere in Montgomery. Without negating resource differences or suggesting neglect of the real problems faced by poor Montgomery-ites, this is a good thing because it makes bridging geographic-income divides much easier.
Doubters might consider the greater gaps in outlook faced by jurisdictions like the District of Colombia, Prince George’s and Baltimore City—let alone the extremes of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—that possess greater concentrations of neighborhoods of concentrated poverty as well as wealthy neighborhoods.