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Mind the Income Gap

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On this score, there is evidence that the fluid immigration and opportunity that made the American Dream part of the national identity is history. According to American University’s Tom Hertz, there is less than a 2 percent chance that an American born to parents whose income is in the bottom 60 percent of all incomes will end up in the top 5 percent. Americans born to parents in the bottom 20 percent, meanwhile, have a 40 percent chance of staying at the bottom. Among the nine high-income countries Hertz has studied, only the U.K. had a lower rate of mobility. For the three-quarters of New Yorkers who don’t have college degrees, the challenge of upward mobility can be particularly acute. Education tops Hertz’s list of factors affecting the odds that one will end up in a higher income bracket than one’s parents, followed by race and health.

For every David Komansky, the Bronx-raised former Merrill Lynch CEO who dropped out of college and then worked his way to the top, and every Stan O’Neal, the current Merrill Lynch CEO, who started on a General Motors assembly line and worked his way through Harvard Business School and corporate America, there are a million New Yorkers who will likely never work their way anywhere. The American Dream is still real, but it’s less achievable than it used to be, and equal opportunity, unfortunately, is a myth.

New York has changed a lot in the 30 years since I was a kid getting terrorized in the park. The city has gotten richer, cleaner, and safer, and thanks to the latest amazing real-estate boom, there are no longer any figurative Mason-Dixon Lines in Manhattan. The gorgeous Harlem brownstones near our old route to the bridge are now worth $2 million apiece—a development that has benefited existing owners even as it has driven some residents out. And last time I visited Central Park’s East Meadow, it seemed as safe as Gramercy Park did when I was young.

Spiteful egalitarianism is not a particularly attractive philosophy, but it’s easy to see why it has so many adherents.

It would be hard to argue that after three decades of increasing wealth, the city is not better off than it was in the seventies. At the same time, it’s hard not to notice that Manhattan has lost some of its economic and cultural diversity as the unstoppable wave of gentrification has flooded through almost every neighborhood. Many longtime Manhattan residents lament such changes. The borough has become an airbrushed playground for wealthy financiers, money managers, corporate lawyers, and international jet-setters, they say. Gone are the grit, the soul, the youthful, creative energy that bred generations of artists, writers, and performers.

But economic diversity and artistic vibrancy have not left the city; they’ve simply migrated outward. If you’re looking for a thriving arts community, get on the L train. If you’re looking for the ethnic and economic diversity that 30 years ago defined the Upper West Side, check out Fort Greene and Prospect Heights. If you’re looking for evidence of economic mobility, head to Queens, where, driven by the success of West Indian immigrants, black households now make more money than white ones.

Economic and cultural evolution has been a constant in the city’s history. After all, the now luxurious downtown loft spaces that made cheap art studios in the sixties and seventies were once failed warehouses and factories. Change can be painful, but stasis is impossible. And a rising standard of living, which on balance the city has enjoyed over the past few decades, is better than a falling one.


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