If you're feeling like the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, you may be on to something. Especially if you live in Southern Connecticut.
According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk metro area has the most income inequality of any area in the United States. In this region, the bottom 20 percent of the population earns an average of $17,000. That's a bit better off than most of the country. Across the United States, the bottom 20 percent of the population earns an average of $12,000. But in Southern Connecticut, the top 5 percent in the area are earning an incredible $823,000 a year, or 49 times as much as their poor neighbors.
This metropolitan area consists of tony Fairfield County, including Connecticut's Gold Coast, a strip of wealthy towns that line the north shore of Long Island Sound, including Greenwich, worldwide capital of the hedge fund industry and where much of Wall Street returns to sleep at night. Beyond that there's Norwalk, Stamford and Fairfield, home to dozens of large corporations, including General Electric, Starwood Hotels, Xerox and Pitney Bowes, lured north from nearby Manhattan with the promise of cheaper rent and lower taxes.
Then there's Bridgeport, a short ride up I-95, where life couldn't be more different. A full 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line. On average that'll just cover a typical rent in the county and nothing else, says Doug Hall, the director of Economic Analysis and Research Network for the Economic Policy Institute. In other words, someone at the bottom of the income ladder would have to spend their entire income just to obtain housing.
Not all of the most unequal cities are the richest. In the Brownsville-Harlingen area of Texas, for example, the top 5 percent are earning $200,000 a year. Not bad by any means, but nationally, the top 5 percent of households are earning $323,000. In Brownsville and Harlingen, low incomes are especially low. The bottom 20 percent of the population earns only $6,000 a year. Three Texas metro areas — McAllen, Brownsville and College Station — all make the list because of low incomes. Two low-income metro areas in Louisiana, Monroe and Shreveport, also are among the nation's most unequal.
And in some cities the poor are poorer and the rich richer than the national average. In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach metro area, the poorest 20 percent earn $1,200 less than average, and the richest 5 percent earn $44,000 more.
We based our list on the U.S. Census Bureau's Gini Index, which ranks income inequality in cities on a scale of 0 to 100. Imagine two islands, each with only five people, and a total income of $100,000. On one island, each person earns $20,000. This island has total income equality, and a Gini score of 0. On the other island, one person earns $100,000 and the other four people earn nothing. This island has total inequality, and a Gini score of 100.
The United States as a whole had a Gini score of 46.9 in 2008. By comparison, incomes are more equal in Europe (the E.U. has a score of 31), and less equal in South America (Brazil has 56.7; Bolivia has 59.2). For income inequality scores around the world, see Distribution of family income — Gini index from the CIA World Factbook.
For what it's worth, no U.S. city has income equality that's close to the levels of Europe. Only seven of the 250 largest American metro areas have Gini scores below 40. The most equal city in the U.S.? East Stroudsburg, Penn., followed by Olympia, Wash.; Ogden, Utah; Jackson, Mich.; Anchorage, Alaska; York, Penn.; and Vallejo, Calif.
© 2012 Forbes.com