Recent U.S. Census estimates show that while St. Louis is losing population, it is gaining wealth, suggesting that economic conditions for residents are improving. But don’t let the numbers fool you. Although poorer areas have seen an increase in median income within the past two years, their growth has not been nearly as dramatic or consistent as their richer counterparts.
Figures released in September from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimate that household median income in St. Louis city steadily increased from $38,060 in 2014 to $43,889 in 2018. A closer look at the data suggests, however, that elevated growth from specific neighborhoods like the Central West End helped skew the numbers upward. For a big swath of St. Louis, however, prosperity remains a distant dream.
Travis Sheridan, president of Venture Cafe Global Institute, told the Post-Dispatch’s Janelle O’Dea that overall growth is attributable to a budding technology sector. Low housing costs and a desirable Midwest location make St. Louis an attractive venue for startup companies, especially those hoping to capitalize on the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency western headquarters under construction in north St. Louis.
Newcomers are bringing more money with them, which is very good. But their investments largely are concentrated in the Cortex, Central West End and downtown areas, says St. Louis University sociologist Ness Sandoval. The neighborhoods that really need investment to balance out the city’s growth, however, aren’t receiving it.
According to Census estimates from 2014 to 2017, the Central West End saw a sharp climb in its median household income, with one of the area’s wealthier tracts increasing from $53,321 to $64,279.
Less-wealthy neighborhoods have also seen income growth, but those areas start from a much lower base, and their year-to-year increases lag far behind the rest of the city. In Wells-Goodfellow, for example, the median household income rose from $20,806 in 2016 to $22,447 in 2017. Census records show that same area as having a median household income of $27,743 in 2014. The 2017 jump might seem like an improvement when, in fact, the troubled neighborhood is still playing catch-up.
Higher overall employment likely is behind the city’s gains, including poorer neighborhoods. Skewed investment, on the other hand, almost certainly is the driving force behind the ongoing disparities.
Education levels also are a major contributor. The latest American Community Survey shows that, in 2017, 89% of residents had graduated high school in that same high-income Central West End neighborhood. In Wells-Goodfellow, that number was 75.2%.
For real change to occur, business leaders, politicians, members of the clergy and social organizations must band together in conveying a consistent message to students across St. Louis: High-paying jobs are there for the taking, but they mean nothing unless you have the skills employers need. Internships and apprenticeships by local executives can go far toward spreading the message that poverty is not a predetermined destiny. And equally important, prosperity is not the exclusive right of the already-privileged.