Visualizing Inequities in Seattle

By Shisham Adhikari and Dominick Ta

I. Introduction and Purpose of the Project

The visualizations and analyses in this project are the proud product of Shisham’s expertise in R and economics, Dominick’s background knowledge in Seattle’s history of segregation and inequality, and our shared interest in utilizing data science for social good. The inspiration began with interests in learning more about income inequality, gentrification, and segregation of the community that Dominick grew up in.

Dominick had always been told since a young age that North Seattle was for ‘white people’ and South Seattle is where everyone else lived. In Seattle, being south meant being low income.

There is a large body of articles that have clearly demonstrated that have established a fact that there is clear income inequality and de facto racial segregation in Seattle. However, there has never been a visual to provide an intuitive spatial understanding of this phenomenon.

The visualizations and analyses within this report serve to confirm or deny knowledge that has spread through word of mouth about which place is the ‘best to live’, ‘has no white people’, or is ‘hella White’, and to provide possible explanations for why this is.

Essentially, we are giving non-locals a ‘lay of the land’ of what the income distribution and racial distribution of Seattle looks like, something that would be hard to learn unless you have local connections.

The value of visualizations like this are increasingly more important in light of the rise of COVID-19 and the demonstrated ways that it has exacerbated inequities around the nation. Policymakers, public health officials, and other public servants must be well-informed of the communities they serve, including knowing exactly where their most at-risk constituents reside.

The findings from our report would be most relevant for those who…

  • work in a field that impact Seattle communities (public health, research, policymaker)
  • are moving to Seattle and trying to figure out where they should live
  • are interested in income inequality
  • are interested in gentrification and housing inequality
  • are interested in racial inequity and segregation
  • are interested in learning about the diverse cultural groups in Seattle!

II. Navigating this Report

The following short sections will provide important information needed to fully reap the benefits of this report.

i. Where is Seattle?

All counties in Washington (left) and a map of King County (right), the county that Seattle resides in. All counties in Washington (left) and a map of King County (right), the county that Seattle resides in.

All counties in Washington (left) and a map of King County (right), the county that Seattle resides in.

It is important to keep in mind that while Seattle is a major tech-hub and important part of Washington’s economy, in the grand scheme of all-Washington things Seattle is very small.

ii. What does Seattle look like?

A map of Seattle side-by-side with a 'judgemental' map sourced by opinions from Seattleites. A map of Seattle side-by-side with a 'judgemental' map sourced by opinions from Seattleites.

A map of Seattle side-by-side with a ‘judgemental’ map sourced by opinions from Seattleites.

In the map above, we can see that Seattle is divided up into a few arbitrary areas. Throughout this report, when we say North Seattle, we won’t mean it necessarily in the sense that is demonstrated in the figure above, but in a more simple sense to establish a dichotomy: North Seattle represents the area above the center of Seattle, and South Seattle represents the area below the center of Seattle.

In addition, here is Dominick’s attempt to summarize local opinion on the different Seattle areas, utilizing the areas in the figure on the left for reference:

  • The northern area of West Seattle and area along the waterfront of West Seattle is known to have relatively higher incomes.
  • The southern areas of West Seattle is an industrial area with low-income communities of color.
  • Southeast Seattle is primarily a residential area that also has many different communities of color with lots of different restaurants and businesses.
  • Central Seattle is known for a lively night life, and is primarily White. One neighborhood in Central Seattle is the ‘Central District’, a historically black neighborhood that has since been gentrified.
  • Downtown is where there are huge skyscrapers, the Space Needle, sports arenas, and more. There are high-income individuals in condos and apartments living adjacent to a huge homeless population.
  • North Seattle is home to the University of Washington and is known to be a ‘white area’.

iii. What is low-income in Seattle?

Our report will be analyzing income inequality, therefore it is important that there is an understanding of what low-income looks like in Seattle, as economies can vary greatly from city to city throughout America.

Shockingly, families of 5 in Seattle with a household income under $102,900 are considered to be low-income, as based on eligibility for low-income public housing.

However, low-income in this sense may be too strict as it is a blanket classification based on data from the entire Seattle area. This information is useful nonetheless due to its ability to be compared to the eligibility of low-income public housing in other cities throughout the nation.

From a more practical local perspective, having an income below $102,900 would only be considered low-income if you wanted to live in North Seattle.

Trying to make it with an income less than this amount in Seattle is easy with just one crazy trick: ‘lower your standards’ and move south! This is an unfortunate fact of life in Seattle that has led to a lot of the de facto segregation and income inequality we will see throughout this report.

iv. Navigating our visualizations

Throughout our visualizations, we have utilized markers in different ways to indicate points of analysis. Clicking on a marker will activate a pop-up bubble including important information about the area around the marker and important things to watch out for.

The meat of our report lies within the analyses embedded within these markers (due to our analyses reliance on spatial visualization), while larger overviews will be provided in written form adjacent to the visualization.

We hope that you will be able to take the time to peruse our report and learn more about Seattle’s rich diversity that is not typically highlighted in popular media. There are also some ‘fun markers’ with facts that may be interesting for those interesting in moving to Seattle or just learning about Seattle.

v. Source of Data

Our data was obtained from the American Community Survey (ACS) of the Census Bureau, through the R package tidycensus by Kyle Walker.

While the census is taken every decade, the ACS is conducted every month on a random sample of households (1 in 38), with ACS results released every year once enough data is gathered.

If you are selected for the ACS, you will be mailed a survey and you are required by law to take the ACS. Failure to complete the survey means that you will be called through phone to do the survey. Otherwise, ACS sends representatives to knock on doors for an interview of randomly selected individuals who failed to take the survey through both mail and phone.

III. Income Inequality Over the Past Decade

i. Income Inequality Over Time in King County

By looking into the ratio of the mean income for the highest quintile (top 20 percent) of earners divided by the mean income of the lowest quintile (bottom 20 percent) of earners in King’s county we can get an idea of income inequality over time. Here we can see that income inequality has sharply risen from 2010 to 2014 and leveled off since then. (Data is based on multiyear “period” estimates derived from the American Community Survey (ACS) data sample collected over time)

This visualization is just one of many that have been created about Seattle to demonstrate its inequities. It is a proven fact that Seattle has inequities, and the purpose of this report is not to contribute to this established body of knowledge, but to provide a different perspective.

The goal of the visualizations in the following parts of this report is to provide a more intuitive spatial understanding of these inequities. It is one thing to ‘know’ that inequities exist through numbers and graphs, but seeing inequities is different and can have a much larger impact on an individual in understanding this issue.

ii. Spatial Distribution of Median Income over 2009-2018

Here are our major observations from our spatial visualization of median income over time:

  1. Median income increased all across the board.
  2. Median income increased at disproportional rates

To guide your exploration of these visualizations, we have marked three locations as case studies to watch over time to witness income inequality grow in action.

a. Distribution of Median Income, 2009