From the beautiful murals that crowd the alleys of the Mission, to the talk show you just listened to on your way home on KPFA, to the jealousy with which it guards its counterculture iconography, San Francisco has a lot of emotional investment in a particular image of the city: caring, diverse, pro-worker, progressive, conscious, sustainable, committed to equality. (Trust me, I’ve spent most of my life in the midst of it.)
As I’ve frequently written on this blog, it feels like the city (the City, if you’re from the 415) is drifting away from these ideals—in the facts on the ground if not in the minds of its residents. So I decided to poke around on the Census website and see what the statistics could tell me. What I discovered was quite stunning: the image of a city behind the curve, with some near-criminal inequalities.
In no particular order, here are the first rounds of what I found. There’s lots of additional data out there, so I hope to expand on this in future posts. Unless otherwise linked, these numbers and images are from the (amazing!) Web site of the United States Census.
San Franciscans are richer than Manhattanites
The median household income in SF is $72,947 to Manhattan’s $67,204, about 8.5 percent higher.
San Francisco may be more unequal than Nigeria
San Francisco’s Gini coefficient (the most common measure of income inequality) was about .52 in 2012 – which, according to World Bank figures, is higher than Nigeria. Here, the city does less poorly compared to others, which I don’t find very comforting. Oakland is about the same, at .52, and Berkeley clocks in at .54. Los Angeles is nearly the same as San Francisco. New York is a bit higher, at .54. Of course, America’s Gini is the highest of the advanced economies, anyway (.476, according to the Census, though different data sources give very different numbers). What is particularly striking to me is income inequality in San Francisco mapped against race, which I describe later in this post.
Fewer kids than other big cities
Persons under 18 years old are 13.5 percent of the population in San Francisco. That compares to notoriously kid-free Manhattan with 14.9 percent. The figure is 15.4 percent in Seattle; 21.3 percent in Oakland; 21.4 percent in San Diego; 21.6 percent in all five boroughs of New York City; 23.1 percent in LA and Chicago; 25.9 percent in Houston.
Not so diverse as we think
“Discover the variety of sites, shops, and restaurants that reflect the City’s great ethnic and cultural diversity.” Thus the Web site of the city of San Francisco greets the city’s visitors. Many San Franciscans do cherish ethnic diversity as a principle, and think of their city as a flag-bearer for it. While that love of diversity is wonderful, in 2013 San Francisco is not looking like much of a flag-bearer, compared to other major cities—regionally and across the country.
More white people
San Francisco is a white-plurality city, with non-Hispanic whites composing 41.7 percent of the population in 2012. (Hereafter, I’ll just use “white” rather than “non-Hispanic white”.) Few would be surprised to hear that this is higher than, say, Oakland (which is 25.9 percent white). But San Francisco is also whiter than California as a whole, at 39.4 percent. San Francisco is less white than Manhattan (47.6 percent), but New York state is far whiter than California, and when we look at all five boroughs of New York, the white population comes down to just 33.3 percent of the total.
And it really gets interesting when you put it in historical perspective: California was 57.2 percent white in 1990; San Francisco 46.6 percent. In other words, since 1990, California as a state has become less white 3.6 times faster than the city.
Still a strong Asian population
San Francisco continues to have a very large Asian population, at 34.2 percent of the total (up from 29.1 percent in 1990). Still, this increase has been slower than the increase in the proportion of Asians in California generally, from 9.6 percent in 1990 to 13.9 percent in 2012. I am sure this observation would be enriched with some data on incomes, which I hope to add in a future post.
The percentage of San Francisco that is Latino (or in the terminology of the Census, Hispanic of any race) is, at 15.1 percent, little changed or even a slight increase in the last few decades. But the city is far less Latino as compared to the rest of the state than it was in 1990. In 1990, California was 25.8 percent Latino; today it is 37.6 percent. In context, San Francisco has become less Latino as compared to the state in general.
Dwindling number of African Americans
The shrinking of the city’s African American community in the last two decades is one of the most remarkable ethnic shifts in the city. African Americans are just 6.1 percent of San Francisco’s population of 825,863 – a 44 percent proportional decrease from 1990, and a 50 percent proportional decrease from 1980.
But this is only part of the story when it comes to the troubling status of black San Franciscans: on the whole, they are far poorer than other groups in the city. The median income of a black household, $30,840, is just 35 percent of the median non-Hispanic white household, $89,140.
The African American community in San Francisco is singularly left behind.
African Americans across the state and across the country also lag behind in median income, but not by anywhere near as much. The median income of black households in California is 63 percent of white; in America in general it is 62 percent of the white median.
The gap in San Francisco is also much larger than it is in other parts of the Bay Area.
In Alameda county the ratio of median black to median white income is 49 percent; in Contra Costa 57 percent; San Joaquin, 69 percent; San Mateo, 55 percent; Santa Clara, 59 percent; Solano, 74 percent; the Bay Area in general (the Census’s San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, combined statistical area), 52 percent.
But in this comparison to Manhattan, at least, San Francisco can take some small, cold comfort: median black Manhattanites (18.4 percent of the population) make just 32 percent as much as median white Manhattanites. Throughout the five boroughs the ratio is 59 percent.
Let’s look at the income of San Francisco’s African Americans in another way, comparing it to other cities in the Bay Area. Darker green indicates a higher median black household income. (These are absolute levels, not proportions.) Starting clockwise from San Francisco, the cities are San Rafael, Vallejo, Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward, and San Jose.
Now compare this to the median white income for these cities.
Clearly there is something different going on in each of these cities. But San Francisco really stands out in that it has a very high median white income and an extremely low median black income.
This will not be a surprise for anyone who has spent 20 minutes on Potrero Hill (which is divided roughly 50-50 between gaudily painted restored Victorians and vast rows of housing projects, and whose ethnic and racial make-up is similarly divided).
Many of the aspects of the narratives that San Franciscans tell themselves about their city are flawed at best, and sometimes simply false. The image of San Francisco as a paragon of diversity is no longer true. It is not that San Francisco is homogenous—not by any means—but rather that compared to many other major cities in the state and the country, it is wealthier and whiter.
This doesn’t mean that San Francisco is a racially intolerant city—far from it. I have no reason to think that in this case, income data would perfectly dovetail with biases and opportunity. (Indeed, I have plenty of personal anecdotes to the contrary.)
Most of these inequalities are probably related to the lack of a useful affordable housing plan, without explicit racial overtones (though San Francisco certainly has a history of that), and lack of regional coordination in urban planning.
And the economic barriers to living in San Francisco do not mean in and of themselves that it is a qualitatively bad place to live for poor people. Income is not the only measure of wellbeing. (Though when the median household income for a demographic slice of the population is $31,000, in a city where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is edging toward $3,000/mo, it is hard for me to see how qualitatively good this could be.)
Still, these statistics show that, when it comes to being progressive, talk is cheap. The numbers are out of whack with the rhetoric in San Francisco. Maybe it’s time to come to grips with the kind of city we really are: unequal with racial overtones, inaccessible to families, a follower rather than a leader in regional demographic trends of greater diversity.
Hm, maybe this could be related to the way we are seen elsewhere…
 It was 10.9% in 1990 — 79,039/723959; 12.3% in 1980 — 86190/678,974. Table 58 page 49.