December 4, 2014: Income disparity in Belmont

December 4, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont has a large and growing disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom of the income ladder.  This according to local Census data published in late October.

According to 2013 data released by the Census Bureau, residents in the top five percent of income in Belmont have annual incomes more than 31 times greater than residents living in the bottom quintile.  Each “quintile” represents 20% (or one-fifth) of Belmont’s population.

The income inequality in Belmont is half again higher than the spread in Arlington, Watertown and Waltham, Belmont’s three neighboring communities.

Belmont’s income gap is fast increasing, with virtually the entire income growth in the past six years going to residents having the most with which to begin.  From 2007 to 2013, while the average annual income of households in the top quintile grew by nearly $120,000 (from $288,000 to $406,000), the average income of households in Belmont’s bottom quintile increased less than $800 (from $22,700 to $23,500).

The resulting problems do not turn on the level of poverty in a community, but rather on the gap between the “top” and the “bottom” and on the absence of a “middle.”  In Belmont today, 52% of all income flowing into the town goes to the one-fifth of residents with the highest incomes, while only 3% goes to residents in the bottom fifth. Indeed, Belmont residents in the bottom two quintiles combined (40% of Belmont’s total population) receive only 11% of all income coming into the town.

Income inequality has long been of concern to urban planners. The Metropolitan Planning Council in the Twin Cities (MN), for example, reported in March 2014 that large disparities are unhealthy for a community in several ways.  Concentrating income in a small uber rich population base creates a consumer spending base that is too narrow.  As a result, small local businesses are difficult to maintain. Local business districts often have empty store fronts.

Just as the consumer base becomes too narrow, the tax base becomes too limited as well.  Financially supporting basic municipal services such as education, public safety and road maintenance imposes unsustainable tax burdens on many people.  Tax burdens become problematic no matter how necessary or reasonably-priced the municipal services might be.  Objections to local taxes, whether to reduce class sizes in schools or to repair roads, are largely grounded in the lack of a middle class that can afford to pay for those services.

Specific steps can be taken to address local income disparities, even in a community as small as Belmont. Local employment opportunities are necessary.  Easing the unreasonable permitting review for new and expanded retail business would not just be good economic development policy for our Squares. It would also help create middle-income local jobs.

Allowing greater housing diversity is also needed to address Belmont’s burgeoning income gap.  “Housing diversity” does not simply mean low-income housing for the economically disadvantaged.  Belmont’s planning officials need to end their antipathy toward two-family homes and town houses, both of which provide affordable local homeownership opportunities for the middle class.

Providing services to keep middle-class post-high school families is necessary.  Services such as a strong library and vibrant recreation opportunities help keep people in town even after their kids graduate from Belmont High.

The disappearing middle class is not just a national phenomenon.  The recent Census release shows that it is also a trend affecting Belmont.  Whether you have an interest in your child’s school, or in the condition of your neighborhood streets, or in the vitality of your neighborhood business district, you should also have an interest in addressing Belmont’s income gap.


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