IThis NY Times article is one of several, recently evident in weblogs, etc., that decries the ‘polarization’ of urban areas between very wealthy and very poor, with the subsequent disappearance of marginalization of the middle class.
The ‘money shot’ is, the disproportionate (relative to the US as a whole) size of the tail distributions of income (i.e. there are more high-relative-income and low-elative-income residents and consequently a lot fewer about-middle-income ones; when compared to the country as whole.
Hand-wringing is apparently a specialty of the mainstream press but I think that at least among professional planners and other interested parties, it needs to be pointed pout that the content of these articles presents some serious logical flaws.
1. USING THE WRONG BENCHMARK
Median income in major cities is generally higher than the national average. Thus, if you define rich, middle-class, and poor by national standards, you’d expect the distribution to be skewed toward the ‘rich’.
2. USING THE WRONG MEASURE
Cities where the poor are found in substantial numbers, generally benefit from various benefits, often in the form of below-market-cost housing. No sensible ‘social scientist’ measures income just in terms of monetary receipts but also in terms of direct transfers and benefits-in-kind. In a population where these housing benefits may represent a substantial percentage of income, ignoring them means that a disproportionate number are shoved into the ‘national-standard poor’ category.
So, beyond the somewhat over-the-top headlines, what we can really say is that cities are more expensive than small towns and suburbs (duh) and increasingly only people with a substantial income (which would only qualify them as rich if they lived in Peoria) or those whose residence is subsidized can afford to reside there (duh).
IF (a big if) we are angling toward some sort of policy aim of keeping the middle class in NYC and Frisco, then the most obvious solution is to stop paying poor people to live in Manhattan.
Never mind statements like: “In the San Francisco Bay Area, the percentage of households earning more than $100,000 a year rose to over 30 percent in 2000 from approximately 7 percent in 1970”.
How asinine is that? Ever heard of inflation? Ever heard of income growth ex-inflation? In 1970 few people made 100K, Nowadays that’s a much more accessible amount for a city dweller.