Friday, February 06, 2009

In the Middle of New York
CUF this week released a study on the challenges facing the middle class in New York City, marking probably the closest convergence to date of the Center's work and the life experiences of those of us who are employed there. "Reviving the City of Aspiration," which I didn't write but did spend a lot of time editing, has attracted a great deal of press: it was a featured story on this afternoon, had a feature, the New York Daily News ran a whole package of stories on the report, and so on. All the coverage is available from the page linked above.

I think this attention is partly a reflection of the report's quality, and partly a fluke of timing: in a moment of nearly universal economic anxiety, the authors put their finger on the ur-worry of "losing the American dream" in a place that we at least--maybe in a fit of parochialism--consider to be the home of said dream. That the future of the middle class is very likely to be a big theme, maybe the big theme, of this year's mayoral election doesn't hurt either.

Probably because of the current recessionary context, the media coverage has focused on the bad news among the many data points the authors tracked down: the net domestic out-migration from the city in recent years, how much more we New Yorkers are paying for everything from phone service to auto insurance, our longest-in-the-nation commuting times, the fact that the median wage here provided access to the smallest share of homes, 10.7 percent, in any major metropolitan area of the U.S. There's an undercurrent of (fairly gentle) snark in some of the articles, amounting to "Costs a lot to live here, huh? Tell me something I don't know, smart guy."

But there are two points that I worry will get lost in the focus on bummer numbers. The first is that the bigger problem isn't that current "middle class" New Yorkers--a category that merits the quotes because we're really talking about couples and families with incomes nosing over the six-figure mark, who would be well off almost everywhere else but are effectively middle class here owing to the unmatched cost of living--will leave for someplace where their dollar stretches farther. This happens all the time, as Mayor Bloomberg said in his one remark about the report; it's not that big of a deal. What is a big deal is that the city doesn't seem to offer as much upward mobility into the middle class, for those who were raised here in worse circumstances, as it once did. I think we do a very good job of identifying some of the reasons why this is, but diagnosis is the easy part.

The other point, and I readily acknowledge that this is something I can write about here much more easily than the organization can, is that we all as individuals appreciate that numbers alone can't and shouldn't convey what it's like to live here, with its unique mix of pleasures and frustrations. The New York magazine blog post about the report actually got at this, commenting about a chart from the study (titled "Is the American Dream Out of Reach in New York?") showing the number noted above about the small share of homes that are within reach of a household making the median income:

Rough, right? Except that the chart may be a little mislabeled. "Is the American Dream out of reach?" Sure, we may not be able to afford buying homes here. But we grew up in rural areas, and our life goal wasn't necessarily to buy a home. It was to get the hell out of there and one day move to New York, where everything happened. We don't know about you all, but that was our American Dream.

I get that. But as someone who at least sort of fit that description--the Philly 'burbs weren't rural, but nor were they a place where anything, let alone "everything" happened--I also get that your motivations shift as you age and your life circumstances change. Much as I still enjoy aspects of living in New York, and Brooklyn especially, this cold winter has tested my patience with the city, exacerbating all the annoyances of high cost, limited space, and arduous transit that are always present and that the report details; if we ever do start a family, I think we'd want to go. And I hold that thought in my head alongside the memory that, after the last time I left New York in disgust with it eleven years ago, I couldn't get back here fast enough.


Chris said...

Philly itself is still quite affordable in comparison to NYC. Hell, anything is sans London, right? Suddenly an upper-middler in NYC turns into a richie in Bella Vista or Fairmount.

David said...

Unfortunately, my wife won't move to Philly. Which sucks. I'd go today. I could still do literally all my work for NYC clients--I'd train up to the city for meetings two days a week--and we'd be living like royalty. Royalty, I say!

The comparative data is all publicly available, I think on CNN's site. You can enter in a dollar amount and a U.S. metro area, then another metro area, and it'll tell you how much the first number is worth in the second location, e.g. $50,000 in Houston = $123,000 in Manhattan.

Chris said...

I think this recent NY Times column, while overstating things a bit for dramatization, encapsulates the disparity between living in NYC as rich(let alone middle-class, let alone poor) than anywhere else in the country:

David said...

Yeah, on email today we were going back and forth over just how sarcastically that article was meant to be read. They did quote our report fairly high up in that piece, though it's more "Bonfire of the Vanities" level than our study, which is closer to "All in the Family."

Feral said...

My favorite comparison was that the average monthly rent in New York is $2,801; 53% higher than San Francisco, the second most expensive city in the country.

Finally, I have the raw data to back me up when whiny west-coasters complaining about how expensive "Frisco" is, and I tell them to "shove it".