Income inequality proliferates across the West

How history, tax policies and gentrification play into wealth inequity.

When John Long established Maryvale, Phoenix’s first suburb, in 1955, the nation’s economic topography was about as flat as the desert valley floor. There were pockets of poverty and enclaves of wealth, but huge disparities — even in those freewheeling Mad Men days — were kept in check by progressive taxes, New Deal-era policies and powerful labor unions. The result was a strong, sizeable middle class hungry for housing. Maryvale provided just that, its modest homes with their all-electric kitchens affordable for everyone from the unionized construction workers who built the homes and the defense industry workers buoyed by Cold War federal spending to the public schoolteachers who taught their children.


But in the 1980s, the nation’s economic Zeitgeist shifted, trickle-
down theory and Reaganomics took hold, corporations outsourced labor, federal spending declined and unions ebbed. CEO pay skyrocketed while working-class wages stagnated. Tax rates for the top income earners gradually fell, allowing them to siphon a greater share of the wealth away from the masses and into their own hands. The middle class eroded, leaving in its place a gaping abyss between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else. Today, the gap is wider than ever before, further exacerbated by pandemic-induced economic woes and Trump-era tax cuts for the rich. 


This is seen in neighborhoods and communities across the West: Old working-class bastions like Telluride or Crested Butte become billionaire magnets, while “down-valley” towns struggle with poverty and underfunded services. Formerly middle-class Maryvale is now one of Phoenix’s poorest neighborhoods, its people making one-tenth what their cross-town Paradise Valley counterparts do, yet the median house price is still far out of reach of the average resident.

The disparity sets an inequity feedback loop into motion. Gentrification drives up housing costs, making it hard for the working class to build wealth and forcing minimum wage workers to live in tents or in their cars, which in turn makes it far more difficult for them to find better-paying jobs. The poor have fewer educational opportunities and struggle to climb the economic ladder. People from lower income brackets are more likely to suffer health problems, and exorbitant medical costs render them even poorer. They’re also disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change and pollution. At times, the divide between rich and poor becomes a matter of life and death.   


We welcome reader letters. Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Infographic design: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
Sources: Economic Policy Institute, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Maricopa County, Statistical Atlas, City of Phoenix, Maricopa Association of Governments, Sentinel Hub, Tax Policy Center, Economic Innovation Group, The Viehman Group, Sotheby’s International Realty, Redfin,, Americans for Tax Fairness, Curbed Seattle.