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Thy Neighbor's Budget

Why do New Yorkers all feel poor? Taxicabs and restaurants, of course. But for a fuller picture of the city's spending habits, we asked seven New Yorkers from all walks of life to tell us where it goes. We learned that it's still possible to live the good life here -- if only you made a few thousand more. . . .

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Just what does it cost to live a decent middle-class life in New York? That nagging question came to mind one Saturday last December as my friend Emily and I were strolling along Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The district has gentrified into a poor man's SoHo of boutiques and bistros, and after admiring some overpriced handbags made from secondhand upholstery, we stepped inside a bicycle shop, hoping for an off-season bargain.

I've wanted a bike for years, but I need one that's respectable, since I plan to park it in my living room and some of my friends are serious cyclists. Even in December, an acceptable bike turns out to cost about $350, plus $90 for the special New York-edition Kryptonite lock. "That's a lot of money," I told Emily. "Maybe I can get my parents to buy me a bike for Christmas . . ."

The idea had a disconcerting familiarity. I had made that request before -- twenty years ago, as a 9-year-old. It's not that I'm immature, though Emily may have her own opinions on that score. I have steady work writing for magazines and newspapers. In my small way, I have even partaken of the unprecedented affluence now surging through New York -- the crush of Internet start-ups has increased the demand for journalists (and inflated salaries nicely). I am sure that I'm not poor -- far from it. But as I stood in the bicycle store, my bafflement soon gave way to deeper worries. My parents were 30 years old on the day I was born -- 30 years ago this June, in Buffalo, New York. I'd like to have a family, too, provided I can locate a willing accomplice. If a nice bike seems pricey, how will I ever afford day care?

Anyone with any claim to membership in the city's middle class knows the feeling: We are, as a city, wildly prosperous. Yet it is the stubborn paradox of city life that almost everyone still feels like he or she is barely getting by.

Part of the problem is a national trend: The share of the national income made by the richest 5 percent of families has risen from about 15.6 percent in the mid-seventies to more than 20 percent today, according to Frank Levy, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The 560,000 families that make up the top one-half percent now receive more than 11 percent of the nation's income. Blame for this injustice falls on changes in the tax code, the decline of labor unions and public employment, and the rise in foreign competition for jobs.

But whatever the explanation, the increase in inequality has also taken place in microcosm at every income level, from the bleachers to the skyboxes. The top 2 percent of households are taking a bigger share of the top 10 percent's income, and the top one percent are pulling ahead of the top 2. The rich are getting richer, and the extremely rich are creaming the garden-variety plutocrats. Wherever you live on the income curve, some of your neighbors are piling up toys much faster than you.

Nowhere is this more true than in New York, where once-in-a-lifetime windfalls have poured into Wall Street at the same time the bottom has fallen out from under the poor and working-class. Wall Street bonuses have pushed up the prices for apartments, Hamptons houses, parking, contractors, nannies, and anything else in finite supply. In the past decade, changes in the city economy drove New York from twentieth to first in a ranking of states by the magnitude of the disparity between rich and poor.

One reason New Yorkers feel poorer than before is that, as a group, most actually are. Despite what you read in the papers about the low crime rate and the Times Square cleanup, only the richest fifth of the city's families have seen an increase in spending power over the past 30 years -- or even the past decade. (In constant 1997 dollars, the top fifth's average income rose from $132,112 in the late eighties to more than $155,485 in 1998.) For everyone else, there just isn't as much, plain and simple. The middle fifth of families fell from $43,499 to $38,416. And the very poorest have lost the most. During the same period, the income of the bottom 20 percent of families in the New York City area fell from $8,938 a year to $7,774.

It may be unseemly for anyone comfortably within the city's lucky top fifth to complain of feeling hard-pressed, but in New York the truly poor have no monopoly on a sense of deprivation. "It's the yuppies' lament," says Matthew, a marketing executive making $200,000 a year. "You feel like such an asshole: Things are great for me. There are so many poor people, why am I complaining? You wonder, When can I ever be happy?"

The truth is that rising prices and stagnant wages don't, by themselves, add up to the difficulty of attaining a decent life here. New York imposes on its inhabitants a unique psychic and financial burden -- our own expectations.


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