Best City to Live: Paychecks stretch the furthest in smaller cities for most workers, but techies continue to do best in larger, more expensive cities.
There’s no question that salaries are highest in big, expensive metros and leading tech hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area. This stems from the fact that large, dense, talent-filled metros have dense clusters of tech companies and knowledge jobs that fuel higher rates of productivity. But these places also suffer from extremely expensive housing costs and mounting problems of housing unaffordability and inequality.
So, what happens when you adjust for housing and living costs?
Where adjusted Salaries are highest
When it comes to large metros—those with more than 1 million people, the places that do best include metros like Birmingham, Memphis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Detroit—many of them Rust Belt metros that were hard hit by the 2008 economic crisis. Just one of these metros is in a coastal state: Sacramento (which I’ve long thought to be a tremendous bargain). As Kolko notes, the very large metro (more than 5 million people) offering the highest adjusted salary is Atlanta. At $70,600 that salary is still considerably less than in Toledo, Canton, or Detroit.
Where adjusted salaries are highest in large metros
Conversely, the places where these adjusted salaries are lowest include a mix of expensive metros like New York City and resort destinations such as Honolulu, Miami, Orlando, and Myrtle Beach, which have economies dominated by lower-wage tourism and hospitality jobs. At number six is a farming metro in California with low-wage agricultural jobs.
The drop in what workers take home after paying for housing is considerable. The same job pays nearly 50 percent more in Brownsville than it does in Honolulu after adjusting for cost of living, Kolko points out.
Best City to Live: Where adjusted salaries are the lowest
The story is different for tech workers, who do better in larger metros. Kolko writes that techies’ pay is 5 percent higher in large metros with more than 2 million people than in smaller ones with fewer than 250,000 people, even after adjusting for living costs. It is a whopping 25 percent higher on an absolute basis.
Best City to Live: Where adjusted tech salaries are highest
None of the nation’s other leading tech hubs makes the top 10—not San Francisco, San Jose, New York, Seattle, nor Austin. These places, which have long been expensive for most workers, are now seeing their spiraling housing costs eat away at the take-home pay of techies.
Most of the top 10 are “rise of the rest” places: Columbus, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, San Antonio, and Milwaukee.
The difference boils down to how different kinds and sizes of cities have come to specialize in different kinds of industries and occupations. Highly skilled, talent-driven industries and jobs concentrate in bigger places, while jobs and industries requiring less-skilled workers gravitate to smaller places.
As Kolko puts it: “The small-city advantage holds for adjusted salaries overall and for most individual occupations. It’s especially strong in sales, transportation, and healthcare. Many job titles in finance and tech—both high-paying fields to begin with—pay more in larger metros than smaller ones even after accounting for the cost of living.” This in turn shapes the glaring inequality between highly paid tech workers and finance types and everyone else: This has come to be a defining feature of the new urban crisis.
For Kolko, this can be explained in terms of the divergence between worker and corporate interests. As he frames it, even though workers, or at least most workers, are better off financially in smaller cities, companies are willing to pay significantly more for certain kinds of talent that is located in big cities. While workers and people care about the amount of the money they have left over to live on after paying for their housing, companies care about where they can find the talent they need.
It’s this basic conundrum that lies at the root of the growing geographic inequality, within and across places, that divides America today.