Editorial: Who’s the fairest of them all?

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“There is a growing segment of our community that would rather work to make things better than to live in self-defeating negativity. Thanks to the efforts of this group, many of them young people who have made the conscious choice to make the city their home, we are starting to see Worcester as a place where good things are happening.”

The words of City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., in his self-evaluation to the City Council, speak to the optimism that Worcester is now and can continue to become a place that attracts and retains young people with the ability and willingness to help create a vibrant 21st century economy.

It is a mind-set shared by the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose motto “Recruit, Retain, Incubate” is as much a roadmap to long-term economic growth as a slogan.

Worcester's downtown skyline could see many significant changes.

Wikimedia Commons

Worcester, perennially on the rise …

Worcester’s affordability is a strong selling point, as is its burgeoning downtown as millennials continue to migrate to urban environments.

A study released last Thursday, though, holds the promise of being a key selling point in attracting young professionals to Worcester and keeping college students in the area after graduation.

The Economic Policy Institute released “Income inequality in the U.S. by state, metropolitan area, and county” on June 16. The report, by Estelle Sommeiller, Mark Price and Ellis Wazeter, shows that both Worcester County and the Worcester area have lesser degrees of income inequality than the rest of the state and the Northeast as a whole.

The study builds on the work of economists Thomas Piketty, who gained notoriety for his 2014 book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,”  and Emmanuel Saez. They co-authored “Income inequality in the United States, 1913-2002.”

Like that study, the new report uses tax return data to calculate the average income of the top 1 percent and bottom 99 percent, and uses those figures to calculate a top-to-bottom ratio, their measurement of inequality in which a higher ranking equates to larger inequality.

Among the 14 counties in Massachusetts, Worcester ranks 11th. With the average income of the top 1 percent $797,637 and the average income of the bottom 99 percent $51,685, the county has a top-to-bottom ratio of 15.4. That ranks 981st out of 3,064 counties in the United States. Suffolk County ranks 18th nationally with a top-to-bottom ratio of 51.

Middlesex, the only county in the commonwealth with a population larger than Worcester County, is third in Massachusetts and 81st nationally (30.5).

Faring better than Worcester among Massachusetts counties were Franklin (14.8), Bristol (13.9) and Hampshire (13.9). It bears noting, though, that the average income of the bottom 99 percent in Worcester County is between $5,000 and $15,000 higher than the other three, which include Taunton, Fall River, New Bedford, Amherst, Northampton and Greenfield.

Among the 916 metropolitan areas studied, seven of which were in Massachusetts, Worcester ranked sixth in the state and 474th overall with a ratio of 15.1.

The only metro area in Massachusetts that fares better is Greenfield, which is 494th with a ratio of 14.8.

Worcester also ranks better than all metro areas in Connecticut and Rhode Island, but behind such Northern New England areas as Manchester-Nashua, N.H., Concord, N.H., Rutland, Vt., Bangor, Maine; Lewiston-Auburn, Maine; and Augusta-Waterville, Maine.

Income inequality is unique in being seen as both an economic and social issue. Seventy-two percent of millennials, according to an Institute of Politics survey from Harvard University, believe income inequality is a problem in the United States.

With income inequality nationally now at levels not seen since 1928 and getting worse — the study points out “the top 1 percent captured 85.1 percent of total income growth between 2009 and 2013” — it figures to become a larger issue for millennials and Generation Z, the Boomlets, in years to come.

Having a lesser degree of income inequality than any major metropolitan area in New England sends messages of fundamental equity and a lack of restrictions on upward mobility. These are nice complements to the traditional economic standards that help market a community.

Fairness and affordability is a nice combination. Worcester would do well to capitalize on that.

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