Mayor de Blasio has his work cut out for him if he really wants to end New York’s “tale of two cities.” Gotham has become the American capital of a national and even international trend toward greater income inequality and declining social mobility.
There are things the new mayor can do to help, but the early signs aren’t promising that he will be able to reverse 30 years of the hollowing out of the city’s once vibrant middle class.
As the cost of living has skyrocketed while pay has stagnated except for those at the very top, New York has shifted from a place people go to make it to a place for those who already have it made, or whose families have.
And once here, the rich are indeed getting richer even as the rest of the city is barely holding on.
Between 1990 and 2010, the city’s 1% saw their median income shoot up from $452,415 to $716,625 in 2010 dollars, even as the bottom 60% hardly saw their incomes budge at all, according to a recent City University study. The trend precedes Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor who envisioned New York as a “luxury city,” and it won’t be easy for de Blasio to reverse — especially as he rolls out pricey new public-employee contracts and programs like universal pre-K that further expand the city’s dependence on its wealthiest citizens.
Rather than forge a more upwardly mobile society, New York epitomizes what Citigroup researchers have labeled a “plutonomy,” an economy and society driven largely by the investment behavior and spending of the uber-rich. This creates great demand for low-end service workers — dog-walkers, baristas and waiters — but not much for New York’s middle or aspiring middle class.
Adjusting for the cost of living here, the average paycheck in New York is one of the lowest of any major metropolitan area. Put otherwise, working New Yorkers pay a huge premium to live in the five boroughs, one that repels middle-class individuals and families who aren’t compelled to be here.
The exodus of the middle class has been ongoing for 30 years, with New York by one measure now having the second lowest share of middle-income neighborhoods of America’s 100 largest cities.As the middle class has waned, even exemplars of the celebrated creative class — musicians, artists, writers — find the going increasingly rough, and unrewarding. Laments rock icon Patti Smith: “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. New York City has been taken away from you.”
Certainly some middle class jobs could be created by boosting such things as the port and logistics, resuscitating industries such as food processing and specialized household goods, and rolling out policies that encourage, rather than overregulate, smaller firms in the business-service industry.
But de Blasio’s press to bring in more tax revenue to pay for ambitious new programs, more generous social services and new contracts for city workers have the perverse effect of doubling down on Bloomberg’s bet on the wealthy.
His ambitious ramping up of green-energy policy could be the straw that breaks the back of what remains of the logistics and manufacturing industries in New York, something that has already occurred in California.
And his kowtowing to the teachers union and attempted assaults on charter schools threaten to further undermine the effectiveness of public education, something vital to middle and working class residents.
In fact, the effect of de Blasio’s policies may turn out to be more neo-Victorian than progressive. Rather than new homeowners, the city may see a greater concentration of people dependent on government largesse.