Thursday, 22 June 2006

A City for the Very Rich and the Very Poor

Right before I moved to New York in 2000, someone told me an interesting observation on New York City: it’s a city for the very rich and the very poor.

When I got here I began to grasp what she meant. It seems everyone you meet here is either a struggling student/artist/actor/writer or they’re an established an successful adult with a fabulous apartment on fifth avenue. The outrageous cost of living in this city makes it hard for a middle class person with an average salary to survive, and it seems that in this city you’re either living in squalor or you’re living it up.

With this in mind it wasn’t surprising when the Brookings Institute published a study today on the decline of middle-income neighborhoods in metropolitan America. The study showed that New York has a smaller share of middle-income families than any other major metropolitan area in the country.

Even though it confirms my own observation, the survey results are pretty shocking both for New York City and for the nation as a whole..

In Metropolitan New York, 16.2 percent of families and 28.3 percent of neighborhoods are middle-income. The most stark contrast was in Manhattan, where 51 percent of neighborhoods were identified as high-income, 40 percent as low-income and only eight percent as middle-income. Eight percent!!

The study took a look at the data from the 2000 census and compared it with the data from the 1970 census. The results show that in New York City, the proportion of middle-income neighborhoods has declined dramatically, while low-income and high-income neighborhoods have risen.

This of course reflects the national trend of a shrinking middle class. But what’s alarming about the study is that although the share of middle income families has declined dramatically in the last 35 years, middle class neighborhoods have disappeared even faster. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than in New York City, where astronomical housing prices have given few options to those people in a middle income bracket.

So I guess that whole industrial revolution thing was just a phase, right? It seems to me that any municipality, or any society, that sees its middle class shrinking by such alarming numbers should be concerned. But as long as we continue giving tax breaks to the wealthy and cutting programs that help keep middle-income families from slipping into poverty, we will continue to force people to either end of the economic spectrum. And the gap between the haves and the have-nots will continue to grow.

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